Music

Saluting The Killers’ Misunderstood Sorta-Classic ‘Sam’s Town’ On Its 10th Anniversary

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Recently, I was trying to think of an album from my lifetime that was most adversely affected by a bad media narrative. What’s a bad narrative? It’s a storyline that recurs in magazine profiles and record reviews that comes to shape how the album is perceived and discussed in a distracting or even destructive way. Sometimes, a media narrative is so potent it can actually change how the music sounds, making it seem louder or deeper or more thrilling, as if you’ve consumed the rhetorical equivalent of a mind-altering drug. Bad media narratives, however, can murder art — as a person who works in media and loves art, this fascinates me.

Not all media narratives are bad. Common storylines for albums include “It’s a break-up record!” or “It’s an experimental record!” or, especially lately, “It’s an empowerment record!” These storylines are generally helpful, in that they can effectively market a record to a prospective audience. But when a media narrative takes a turn for the worse, it can swiftly derail an album’s commercial and critical prospects.

So, what album had the worst “bad media narrative” experience? I keep coming back to Sam’s Town, the second LP by the Killers, which came out 10 years ago this weekend.

Do you remember Sam’s Town? It was the followup to one of the most popular rock albums of the ’00s, 2004’s triple-platinum Hot Fuss. Like a lot of people who were 27 in 2004, I loved Hot Fuss. It was catchy and derivative and ridiculous, so it mirrored most of my own thought patterns at the time. Hot Fuss became one of those albums that you didn’t have to own in order to know by heart. If your life revolved around going out to bars almost every night and partying with neurotic people falling in and out of ill-fated romantic trysts, Hot Fuss was an almost too-on-the-nose soundtrack. To this day, I can’t listen to it now without feeling the taste of Jack and Coke in my mouth.

At the time of its release, Sam’s Town was not nearly as beloved, to put it mildly. A loosely conceptual musical tour of the band’s hometown of Las Vegas bookended with “Enterlude” and “Exitlude” tracks, Sam’s Town was widely dismissed as an overblown and pretentious misfire. In his two-star review, Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield compared the Killers unfavorably to Rob Lowe’s band in St. Elmo’s Fire (because Rob Sheffield is the best), and mocked the lyrics to the album’s first single, “When You Were Young,” in which Brandon Flowers sings about “Burning down a highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane.” (“Hurricanes don’t burn, actually; check your copy of Neil Young’s Guide to Weather Metaphors,” Sheffield advised.)

Since then, Sam’s Town has become something of an under-appreciated sorta-classic. Rolling Stone‘s readers rebelled against Sheffield’s review by voting Sam’s Town the decade’s most underrated album. Flowers himself claimed in a 2015 interview that “there’s a reverence for our second record. It really connected with people in a way the other ones didn’t.”

I am not going to argue that Sam’s Town is a lost masterpiece. But I do think it’s pretty good — not as good as Hot Fuss, perhaps, but solid. I actually like the terrible lyrics to “When You Were Young” — purple prose in the service of rock mythology has long been a personal vice. “When You Were Young” is topped in that department only by the title track from Sam’s Town, which includes this memorable stanza:

“I took the shuttle on a shock wave ride
Where people on the pen pulled a trigger for accolades
I took a bullet, and I looked inside
And it’s running through my veins
An American masquerade”

As you can plainly see, the plot of Sam’s Town involves a roller coaster ride in which gunfire breaks out, wounding the protagonist and afflicting him with nationalistic ennui. Does this make a lick of sense? Of course it does.

“When You Were Young” and the title song are among the keepers on Sam’s Town, along with the caterwauling “Uncle Jonny” (the best rock tune about a middle-aged cokehead since Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”), the Coldplay-like “Read My Mind,” and my favorite song on the record, “For Reasons Unknown,” which was written a few years earlier and sounds like a Hot Fuss outtake.

My main criticism of Sam’s Town is that — like a lot of mainstream ’00s rock albums — it was mixed stupid-loud, so it sounds compressed and distorted if you turn it up in the car. But given how overheated the songs are, I can almost justify the mix as a thematic choice. (“Maybe we’re going deaf, but we like it that way,” Flowers said of the album’s loud mix to Rolling Stone in 2006.) However, I can’t explain why one of the best Killers songs from this period, “‘All the Pretty Faces,” wasn’t included on Sam’s Town. For an album so unapologetically bombastic, excising the heavy-riffing “Faces” was inexcusable. (It eventually came on 2007’s outtakes collection Sawdust.)

More than listening to Sam’s Town, I enjoy thinking about Sam’s Town. Specifically, I wonder if the album’s reception would have been different if not for two critical (and largely self-inflicted) missteps that forever warped the media narrative.

I refer to braggadocio and beards.

In the wake of Hot Fuss, it was assumed that the Killers were going to become the new Duran Duran. (Which would’ve made The Bravery the next A Flock of Seagulls.) But something happened on the way to Sam’s Town — Flowers became an unlikely Bruce Springsteen disciple. As he related in a Sam’s Town era interview with Blender‘s Jonah Weiner, Flowers got turned on to the Boss after hearing “Born to Run” come on the radio while driving around Las Vegas. “I heard it, drove right to a record store and bought a Springsteen greatest-hits CD,” he said. “I want to put a Springsteen poster up on my wall. I’ve never believed anybody — anybody — like I believe him. He’s a prophet.”

In this light, you can see how “When You Were Young” apes and exaggerates the grandiose “wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims”-style imagery of “Born to Run.” When you’re in the throes of early Bruce Springsteen fandom, there is no such thing as “too florid.” And Flowers, far from being a serious long-time student of Springsteen’s catalogue, evangelizes with the fervor of a recent convert, embracing the operatic songwriting of mid-’70s Springsteen with endearing guilelessness.

The unabashed fan worship is actually pretty touching — the messianic imagery of “When You Were Young” evokes the exhilaration of discovering a new song that re-arranges your worldview, in which hurricanes suddenly can and do burn in the space of your imagination.

The Killers soon began broadcasting to reporters that the band’s next record would depart from the danceable, synth-driven rock of Hot Fuss and toward full-on arena rock in the mode of Born in the U.S.A. and U2’s The Joshua Tree. Whereas Hot Fuss was sold on the strength of front-loaded singles like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me,” Sam’s Town was pitched from the beginning as a classic-rock album through and through, from the music to the iconography.

Anton Corbijn, the famous rock photographer best known for the shooting the evocative desert-set cover for The Joshua Tree, was hired to shoot the cover for Sam’s Town. Corbijn once again set off for the desert, photographing the band amid a run-down trailer park, in keeping with the “chic, gypsy look” that the band requested. On the cover of Sam’s Town, Las Vegas actress and singer Felice LaZae stands in a bikini accessorized with a pageant sash next to a goat, which stares mysteriously into the distance. It’s all very enigmatic and “profound.”

Inside the album, the members of the Killers are freshly hirsute, in part, on the advice of Corbijn, who encouraged the band to grow facial hair when he directed the video for “All These Things That I’ve Done” in 2005.

“It’s a more intelligent look and also quite a courageous look,” Corbijin told Spin. “It’s not the look of a necessarily successful band.”

People made fun of the Killers’ beards. To be fair, it did seem strange that the singer for the Killers suddenly resembled Rick Danko. In a 2015 interview with The Independent, Flowers claimed that Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys reached out personally to express his concern about Flowers’ Sam’s Town beard. Corbijn thought beards signified seriousness, but some of the band’s biggest boosters didn’t want the Killers to be serious. The iconography of Sam’s Town was instantly disturbing to the Killers’ pop fans. As Sheffield argued in his review, Sam’s Town was viewed as an attempt to “ditch their cheerfully fake Bowie moves and try to get heavy by copying Bruce Springsteen.”

In the end, however, beards didn’t hurt the Killers as much as braggadocio.

Early in the promotional cycle for Sam’s Town, lead singer Brandon Flowers did an interview with Giant magazine in which he declared that Sam’s Town was “the best album in 20 years.” Now, in 2016, we know that Sam’s Town isn’t the best album in 20 (or 30) years, and we also know that Flowers himself probably knew this. And that’s totally okay! A decade of Kanye soundbites has conditioned the public to understand that brashness is an essential tool for an artist trying to cut through the noise of modern media. But 2006 was a simpler time, and in spite of social media’s nascent state, the quote went viral, and it’s remained an essential part of the identity of Sam’s Town. Giant magazine folded in 2009, but the “best album in 20 years” quote has lived on.

Because the Giant profile was one of the first interviews Flowers did for Sam’s Town, the quote became a plot point in every subsequent story about the record. (Heed this, artists: Your first interview always becomes a kind of pace-car for your other interviews. Journalists instinctively react to each other.) It’s possible that if Flowers had slipped that “best album in 20 years” chestnut into his 20th Sam’s Town interview, nobody would’ve noticed. But because it appeared in one of the first Sam’s Town era profiles, it became an impossibly high bar against which the album would be judged.

“I put my foot in my mouth quite a bit in the early days,” Flowers admitted to Rolling Stone in 2015. (In the same interview, Flowers also blamed Rolling Stone‘s review for turning the tide against Sam’s Town.) But while Flowers pump-faked in the direction of retreat in subsequent interviews, expressing vague regret for his inconvenient cockiness, he seemed to always wind up double-downing on arrogance.

In a track-by-track commentary for the NME, Flowers likened the self-referential “Sam’s Town” to real-life landmarks referenced by the Beatles in “Penny Lane” and Abbey Road. He added that “Uncle Jonny” had “one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time,” amending his own claim that “When You Were Young” featured “one of the greatest guitar lines ever written” in his Blender interview.

“I love Sam’s Town. I don’t regret saying that,” Flowers told Blender. “I’d put it up against OK Computer. I’d put it up against Achtung Baby. It’s what I’m here for: Thom Yorke’s not gonna make another OK Computer; he’s making a bunch of noise.”

Flowers kept going: “I was reading an old interview with Springsteen about how he went into Born to Run wanting to make the best rock ‘n’ roll album that’d ever been made. People think it’s pretentious, but I looked at that album and I looked at Hunky Dory, and Springsteen and Bowie were 24 when they made them. I was like, ‘I’ve got to up the ante.’ ”

Anyone who’s not Brandon Flowers could’ve predicted what happened next. While reviews weren’t uniformly negative, Sam’s Town was measured largely against Flowers’ own words from the album’s press campaign, and critics responded by calling the album “mediocre” and “overreaching.” Perhaps the worst insult of all came from Entertainment Weekly, who compared the Killers not to Springsteen but to another Jersey institution, Bon Jovi.

The problem with Sam’s Town is that the Killers didn’t deliver on “upping the ante” — they simply delivered another Killers record. It wasn’t even all that different from Hot Fuss, no matter how it was packaged. Strip away Corbijn’s stark black-and-white photos and Flowers’ aspirational pull-quotes and the My Name Is Earl-themed facial hair, and Sam’s Town sounds a lot like the danceable, synth-driven rock songs with which the Killers made their name. I suspect that if Flowers hadn’t insisted on music critics invoking Springsteen’s name in reviews, they probably wouldn’t have gotten there on their own. After all, if Sam’s Town is a slavish Springsteen homage, where are the Roy Bittan-like piano licks or Clarence Clemons-biting sax wails? The media narrative made people hear Springsteen flourishes that weren’t really there.

Ten years removed from its original moment, Sam’s Town has aged as all misunderstood sorta-classics do, where its deficiencies are now strengths. In 2006, Sam’s Town seemed like a failure because it wasn’t the next iteration of Achtung Baby or Hunky Dory. But in 2016, it’s easy to admire Sam’s Town as an attempt at something grand, given that so few rock bands now have the means or clout to even ponder such grandiosity. A record that was risible to some because its attendant hype was so overbearing now has the appeal of a mistreated underdog. Against all odds, the narrative came around on Sam’s Town.

To mark the anniversary The Killers are reissuing Sam’s Town on vinyl on 10/7 via Bong Load Records.

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