For as long as I’ve listened to The Killers (going back to 2004’s Hot Fuss, which seems like an impossibly long time, what have I done with my life?) I’ve never quite figured out a seemingly straight-forward question: Is this band good or terrible? I somehow own most of their albums, including (inexplicably) the 2007 B-sides and outtakes collection Sawdust — though not 2012’s generally disliked Battle Born, which means I’m not completely hopeless. And I tend to enjoy those records (I think?), and have on occasion even publicly defended them. This suggests that I find The Killers to be “good.”
But merely liking something doesn’t mean that thing is good. I also own every album by Muse and Kings Of Leon, and I feel like I should apologize for it. (My taste in ’00 rock is dangerously nonjudgmental.) With the Killers, you can’t deny that a whole lot is terrible — the (ridiculous) lyrics, the (smarmy) persona, and especially the (epically bad) taste in everything from bolo ties to album covers. Even the songs I know are good are still pretty embarrassing. The “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” breakdown in “All These Things That I’ve Done,” the baldfaced copying of Bruce Springsteen’s purplest prose in “When You Were Young,” the weird broken English of “Human” — these are transcendent tunes that I can only enjoy if I switch my brain off.
I don’t think The Killers even know if they’re good or terrible. With Hot Fuss, The Killers appeared poised to be the next Duran Duran — a knowingly trashy pop-rock band that specializes in danceable jams that you blast in the car while heading out to the bars on a Saturday night. But on the next Killers record, Sam’s Town, they decided to be the next iteration of U2/Springsteen, an earnest “Important Band” type that makes grand statements about the state of the world. And that’s the ill-fitting slot that The Killers — a band with nothing to say but ample flair when it comes to packaging hot air into statement-like shapes — have occupied ever since.
I only got a handle on my feelings about The Killers recently, after hearing “The Man,” the first single from their first album in five years, Wonderful Wonderful. In form, “The Man” is a throwback to the cartoonish, air-headed fun of Hot Fuss, incorporating elements of Kool & The Gang’s “Spirit Of The Boogie” as a silky musical bed for a series of Brandon Flowers’ lusty, semi-self-aware boasts. “When it comes to Friday / I always earn / don’t try to teach me, I got nothing to learn / ’cause baby I’m gifted / you see what I mean? / USDA certified lean.” But as an artistic gesture, “The Man” is really Rorschach test for how you perceive The Killers — if you think this band is capable of being legitimately good, “The Man” is very bad. (Judging by my social media feed, this song is strongly disliked by Killers fans.) But if you think The Killers are terrible, “The Man” might in fact … be good?
For me, Flowers’ willingness to refer to himself as “USDA certified lean” signifies the most endearing thing about The Killers. Because this band is neither just good nor just terrible, but rather good because they’re terrible.