On The Record: Shiny, (Relatively) Happy People
In a recent feature, London's Observer newspaper proclaimed that the Killers "may just be the strangest band in America." I don't know if I agree with that. Perhaps "the strangest multiplatinum, major-label band in America" is a better fit. Or even "the strangest band in Las Vegas."
Regardless, the sentiment is correct. Over the course of five years, the Killers have been nothing if not unpredictable and rather unapologetically so. Whether they're masquerading as starry-eyed synthesizer aficionados with an Anglo sweet tooth (2004's Hot Fuss) or gruff-voiced Springsteen disciples with a thing for widescreen Americana (the '06 follow-up, Sam's Town), they've certainly danced to the beat of their own drum machine, critics be damned.
So it sort of makes sense that on their latest, Day & Age (in stores November 25), the Killers have decided to jettison practically everything you've previously known about them and just make the best Duran Duran record in recent memory (or at least a pretty good David Bowie album or a decent Bryan Ferry disc).
Produced by British dance retro-ist Stuart Price (formerly of Les Rhythmes Digitales and Zoot Woman, and most of Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor album), Age positively sparkles with studio sheen, a record full of crisp, echoey vocals, spaced-out synth squiggles, bossa-nova drum patterns and way more saxophone than you could possibly imagine. There are moments that recall early-'80s gems like "Rio," "Notorious," "China Girl" and "Slave to Love," if not so much in style as in sophistication. If nothing else, Age is an album of unabashed excess, of neon-lit late nights, of diamonds and dance floors and endlessly bubbling champagne. It is a record for the good times, even when times aren't necessarily all that good.
Opener "Losing Touch" kicks off with a rumbling R&B horn section and some starry guitar work, with frontman Brandon Flowers inviting some unknown bon vivant to "caress me in your velvet chair" and "go run and tell your friends I'm losing touch." The song builds to a frothy climax before a winging guitar solo from Dave Keuning brings the party to a close.
First single "Human" is up next, a shiny mix of galloping bass lines (a Price trademark) and smoky synth lines. By now, you've surely heard it, and while there's not much else to add, I will say that, having listened up close and personal, there is roughly an 85 percent chance Flowers is singing "Are we human/ Or are we denser," and not, as many believe, "dancer." Which sort of makes more sense, in some cosmic way, I suppose.
"I Can't Stay" is next, starting off with more of that galloping bass and some twinkly harp, throwing some shuffly guitar into the mix and then tossing everything overboard with an insane saxophone line that takes this into Carnival Cruise Line territory. Throw in some calypso rhythms and a genuine steel-drum line at the song's end, and you've got a complete, couples-only Caribbean vacation.
That's followed by "The World We Live In," which starts with a galaxy of strings and synthesizers and Flowers singing "Maybe I was mistaken/ I heard a rumor that you quit this day and age." The song opens into a great starry space, then collapses back in on itself with more horns and spindly, spy-movie guitars. "A Dustland Fairytale" is next, a somber, sepia-toned tune reportedly about Flowers' parents. Featuring plinking piano and mournful cello, it builds to a powerful, soaring crescendo, and coupled with Flowers' Americana-obsessed lyrics (plenty of mentions of "blue-jean serenades," "party dress"-clad damsels and "Kodachrome prints"), it's perhaps the album's only song that harkens back to the Sam's Town days.
The opposite of that is "Neon Tiger," a shimmery example of glitzy, Baroque pop that — in its early sections, at least — recalls Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz." The song builds to a string-filled climax, with Flowers summoning all manner of faux drama and bellowing, "Away! Away! Oh, run!"
"Spaceman" follows, pure synth-rock candy and "ooh-ooh-ooh!" backing vocals. There is some fabulous robo-guitar work, a rather nifty bass/drum/vibraphone breakdown, and some ray-gun sound effects, and — it should be noted — Flowers puts on perhaps his best vocal performance of the entire album, cautiously and delicately exploring an upper range most (myself included) didn't know he possessed.
The album enters the homestretch with "Joy Ride," which is about as unabashed an ode to '80s pop as you'll find in 2008. Starting off with "chicka-chicka-chicka" vocals (like Yello's "Oh Yeah") and wah-wah guitars, the song kicks into gear with Flowers singing about a bad-news girl in a "candy-apple red dress," then flies into absolute overdrive thanks to a lengthy saxophone section, some bossa-nova drums and more of that galloping bass line — a glitzy, goofy bit of dance-floor mastery that's only topped by Flowers shouting, "When your chips are down/ When your highs are low — Joy Ride!" in the chorus.
Taking an abrupt 180, "Joy Ride" crashes headlong into "Goodnight, Travel Well," a six-and-a-half-minute exercise in ominous horns, desolate drum fills and Flowers at his absolute nadir, wailing, "The unknown distance to the great beyond/ Stares back at my grieving frame." The song does build to a rather impressively powerful strings-and-horns middle section, but given its length — and its depressing subject matter — it seems bizarrely out of place on the album (it also sounds a lot like Radiohead's "Climbing up the Walls"). Simon Le Bon would not approve.
After all the dirge-ery, Day & Age wraps up with "This Is Your Life," which rides a bizarre, treated loop of vocals and chants, throws some electronic harpsichord into the mix and tops it off with an Edge-y guitar line. Flowers sings, "Your sky's full of dreams/ But you don't know how to fly," and the whole thing builds and builds until he's left shouting, "This feeling won't go ... wait for it ... wait for it ... " while the lights come on and a drum cadence ushers the last partygoers out the door.
No word on the after party just yet, but I'll assume it's going to be fabulous. After all, living the high life means never having to come down, not even for a minute. And on Day & Age, the Killers go unapologetically higher and higher (mostly). At this point, they're never gonna touch the ground.
Questions? Concerns? E-mail me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.