NEW YORK — There was much pomp and circumstance surrounding the worldwide debut of the Killers’ Sam’s Town on Monday evening.
From the neo-industrial venue (the epically named New World Stages) to the mock playbill packed with lyrics; from the moody, Anton Corbijn-shot black-and-white photographs adorning the walls to the guest list — which included Island Def Jam head honchos Jay-Z and L.A. Reid — it was all clearly a big to-do. But the surrounding hubbub paled in comparison to the music itself, which was, to coin a phrase, incredibly pompadocious.
Because while Sam’s Town might not be “one of the best albums of the past 20 years,” as frontman Brandon Flowers insisted to MTV News back in May (see “Killers’ Next LP Will Show Strong Influence Of … Bruce Springsteen!?” ), it’s certainly one of the most grandiose.
Filled with spaghetti-Western guitars, soaring strings and even higher-soaring vocals from Flowers, Sam’s Town is indeed voluminous. The title-track opener kicks off with a drum roll and a wall of strings, then quickly morphs into a hard-charging fist-pumper, complete with Morricone guitar stabs and a bottom end that conjures a thundering herd while Flowers bemoans lost Americana (“Red, white and blue upon a birthday cake/ My brother was born on the Fourth of July”) and bellows, “I see Sam’s Town!” (The album’s title is a nod to Sam Boyd, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1941 with just a few dollars in his pocket but worked his way up from card dealer to casino owner by the end of the ’60s.)
The intensity never really lets up from there.
“Enterlude” — which, puzzlingly, is the album’s second track — builds upon a jaunty, saloon-friendly piano line (which may explain why the Killers decided to dress like Wild West barkeeps for the Sam’s Town promo photos), as Flowers welcomes listeners and hopes they enjoy their stay, “even if it’s just for the day.”
That’s followed by the first single, “When You Were Young” (see “Preview New Killers Single — Here, Now” ), all chugging guitars and Springsteen-esque emoting, and then “Bling (Confessions of a King),” which opens with a rare moment of quiet — Flowers’ falsetto floats on a stream of synthesizers — but is subtly pulled down until it becomes a Depeche Mode-worthy lament with dark keyboard lines and tumbleweed guitars.
“For Reasons Unknown” is next, an ode to life on the road chock full of multitracked vocals, nifty guitar work and some rather head-scratching lyrics (“There was an open chair/ We sat down in the open chair”). “Read My Mind” kicks off with crashing drums and features a gut-punching midsection, constantly building into a gently gigantic stomper while Flowers opines, “The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun.”
Next, “Uncle Jonny” is a cautionary tale about cocaine that emphasizes its point with raucous guitar and a massively funky bass line, and “Bones” flexes some serious choral muscle and shows a sense of humor too, opening with a massively multitracked “Come with me!” before giddy synthesizers go off like bottle rockets.
The album enters its home stretch with a trio of epic ballads: “My List” starts off thudding and ominous but develops into a crashing, cell-phones-in-the-air crescendo, complete with “We Are the Champions” guitar heroics and Flowers pushing his voice into unforeseen territory. “This River Is Wild” is full of spooky guitars and slightly goofy vocals (Flowers yelping, “Shake a little!”), a racket that gathers steam until falling away to just Flowers’ voice and a somber piano line.
“Why Do I Keep Counting?” sounds like a rumination on life and death but is apparently about Flowers’ fear of flying. It’s a swooning mix of forlorn guitars and curdling synthesizers that rises and rises and rises until everything is popping like cannons and crashing cars, culminating in a truly over-the-top finale that evokes the booming notes of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” widely known for its appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Then — almost as an afterthought — the album wraps up with “Exitlude,” which opens like Bob Dylan (particularly with Flowers’ vocals inflection on the words “aggressively” and “regrettably”) and ends like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” right down to the lingering piano chord. In the middle of the song, when Flowers murmurs, “It doesn’t really matter,” it was difficult not to think of the setting, the audience, the deafening volume and the album’s considerable aspirations — clearly, it does really matter to many people.
From the arty photography to the massive strings, the scruffy beards to the stuffy subject matter, Sam’s Town is most certainly the Killers’ bid for artistic legitimacy. And remember: Subtlety has never been their strong suit.