CD Review of Sam’s Town by The Killers

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Sam’s Town
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Island
Released: 2006
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The moment I saw the Killers on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live,” with frontman Brandon Flowers dressed in a plaid cowboy shirt - complete with a molester moustache and black-rimmed glasses - it was clear that the band’s sophomore effort, Sam’s Town, was going to be a departure, and probably for the worse. Gone was the glittery tie and suit coat that epitomized the glamorous, pretty boy vibe behind the group’s debut, Hot Fuss, which has sold more than five million copies to date. These aren’t the kids that hooked you with “Somebody Told Me” or “Mr. Brightside” and kept you around for “All These Things I’ve Done” and “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine.” The Killers have grown up – notice the facial hair, please! – and they would like to be taken seriously.

The simple truth is there is nothing on Sam’s Town that approaches those aforementioned tracks. (However, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not big fan of “Somebody Told Me,” though many others are.) There’s a saying that you have 18 years to write your first album and 18 months to write your second, so it’s wise to lower expectations when first listening to the follow-up of a monster debut. Highly anticipated sophomore efforts rarely meet their bloated expectations, and anyone expecting another Hot Fuss will surely be disappointed. But even if the highs on Sam’s Town aren’t as high as those on the debut, the lows aren’t any lower, either.

The group has put its now-considerable weight behind the first single, “When You Were Young,” which is unimpressive at first listen (considering the group’s catalog of hits), but after a few more tries, the track manages to dig its way into the brain, making it a shoe-in for the band’s greatest hits package that will no doubt drop in the next decade. The Killers decided not to open the album with this single, however, instead choosing to start with the title track, which opens with the same feel as “Somebody Told Me,” though the rest of the song is completely different. It’s instantly clear that Flowers’ inflection has changed. Not so much in what passes as the chorus – that’s still pretty smooth – but in the verses, his altered pitch is quite noticeable. With the help of Louis XIV on backing vocals, there’s an attempt at a Queen-inspired chorus near the end, which leads into a disconcerting circus melody to close the song.

“For Reasons Unknown” is probably the album’s most Hot Fuss-like track. It’s got a subtle opening that builds into a cool little rocker, though Flowers’ vocals are still a little pitchy, which is something that producers Flood and Alan Moulder should have corrected, unless it was intended. The band also played “Bones” on “SNL,” so presumably that will be the next single. (Editor’s note: It is indeed the next single, and Tim Burton is directing the video.) It has a catchy chorus – “Don’t you want to come with me / Don’t you want to feel my bones / On your bones / It’s only natural” – that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. “My List” (on which Louis XIV also appears) is a little quirky and plods along at times, but there’s something compelling about it if it’s not taken too seriously.

But that’s what the Killers want – to be taken seriously. Or maybe they just want to be taken a little more seriously. Is that why Flowers pimps the Bruce Springsteen influence every chance he gets? Certainly, the Boss can be felt during “The River Is Wild,” with its story format, drum flourishes and quiet piano ending, but as a whole, Sam’s Town isn’t Springsteen-esque at all. In the real world, Sam’s Town is an off-Strip casino in Vegas – the band’s hometown – where locals go to gamble, so instead of the glamour and glitz of the Strip that they gave us on Hot Fuss, maybe the Killers want to expose us to the grit and the grime of the real Vegas. With its charmingly odd bookends – “Enterlude” and “Exitlude,” which serve to welcome the listener and to say goodbye – the album feels like a night at Sam’s Town, bed bugs and all.

~John Paulsen