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.)