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.
Our lovably callow heroes are in a precarious position in 2017 — as if the extended delay between albums wasn’t alarming enough, half of the band will be staying home during The Killers’ upcoming tour in support of Wonderful Wonderful, because “they want to spend more time with their families,” the most dreaded PR excuse in all of flackdom. Meanwhile, The Killers’ status as a multi-platinum, arena-filling legacy act has been diminished by changing cultural winds and their own inertia. With the rise and stubborn resilience of Imagine Dragons, The Killers aren’t even the biggest rock band from Las Vegas any longer. They’ve been reduced to The Bravery in their own backyard.
The press tour for Wonderful Wonderful has been an opportunity for Flowers to reflect on the band’s dubious legacy, another possible sign that The Killers are winding down. “The older you get, the more you’re conscious of time and how limited it is,” he told Billboard. “And the megalomaniac in you says, ‘Well, what kind of mark have I left?’”
At the risk of stating the obvious, here’s The Killers’ legacy: “Mr. Brightside.” One monumental single that never seems to go away. Most bands would kill for one song like that. But you suspect that The Killers want more.
Here’s a slightly longer version of The Killers’ legacy: They peaked early and have gotten progressively worse ever since. They put out a popular debut that’s easily their best album. Then they put out an overblown sophomore record that was initially underrated, and now seems slightly overrated, but overall is clearly the second best Killers record. Then they put out a third record that’s the third best, and so on, right on down to Wonderful Wonderful.
Which brings us to the final song on Wonderful Wonderful, the Killers’ new nadir: “Have All The Songs Been Written” is a painfully self-indulgent lament, accented with beer-commercial licks supplied by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, about the uncertainty, even futility, of the creative process. “Has every ship gone sailing / has every heart gone blue?” Flowers muses, as Knopfler strokes out some expressive six-string wails.
I wonder if “Have All The Songs Been Written” was intended as a meta exercise — after all, who ever thought The Killers would ever sound bluesy? Now there’s a song that hadn’t been written, and with good reason. Maybe calling the record Wonderful Wonderful was meta, too.
“Have All The Songs Been Written” isn’t good because it’s terrible, it’s just terrible. But Wonderful Wonderful does offer some disreputable highs if you’re willing to stomach the valleys. The most obvious highlight is “Run For Cover,” a zippy synth-rocker that sounds like prime-era Killers because it in fact derives from a decade-old demo. Though Flowers does slip in some timely commentary: “I saw Sonny Liston on the street last night / black-fisted and strong singing ‘Redemption Song’ / he motioned me to the sky / I heard heaven and thunder cry.” Sheesh, dude.
Personally, I’m partial to “The Calling,” prefaced with a monologue (!) by Woody Harrelson (!!) that quotes liberally from the book of Matthew (!!!) Then there’s “Tyson vs. Douglas,” which uses the titular 1990 boxing match between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas as a metaphor for fear of failure. The chorus, of course, is melodramatic but also rousing in the Pavlovian way that the best/worst Killers songs always are. “I had to close my eyes / just to stop the tears,” Flowers bellows, daring you to believe that Mike Tyson really made young Brandon Flowers weep 27 years ago. I would wager he was actually listening to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me at the time.
The paradox of The Killers is that few bands are as self-conscious about chasing greatness at every turn, or as lacking in awareness of what truly makes them good. They attempt to pose as serious spokesmen with gravitas, but what’s made them enjoyable is their silliness and shamelessness. The Killers are full of sound and fury signifying nothing — and I mean that (sort of) as a compliment.