Brandon Flowers may be the most nostalgic world-famous musician in the game today. He’s also the most determined, the most game and the best equipped to do something about it, as 13 years of The Killers’ impressive & diverse output has shown.
The new surprise single from the Las Vegas quartet just hit the scene mid-June. The “scene”, here, is a scattershot, byzantine world of mainstream press, surviving radio, indie blogs, faux-indie blogs, and fans who situate themselves astride all of this noise as authority figures (and often are). Oh yes, yes, the VICTIMS are rising up from their slumber. For, in the current age, with old media (and what we optimistically called “new media” for a bit) disappearing “like sinking ships”, with social media forming the new site of hype but also, real grass-roots growth, the fans who’ve stuck by their TV shows and their bands for a decade or two now have longer and deeper knowledge bases and more context than most of what exists online. Just like our most attentive, focused musicians do.
The Killers just pulled off a brilliant move that seems incidental until you think about how little spontaneity is possible in modern life and music, how rare good surprises really are, and how hard it is to capture people’s attention today. They descended on Glastonbury Sunday midday (stealing most of the headlines) for a cheeky drop in at the only tent for them (aside from the headlining slot they’ve done and will continue to own in the future, we think), with their post-modern, winking Elvis flourish, The John Peel stage. (Complete with a walk on to Peel’s reputed favourite song “Teenage Kicks”.) As of Sunday evening, everyone knew about “The Man”, a bold riff that is a bouillabaisse of Glam, P-Funk, Daft Punk, Chic, new disco, Kool & the Gang (!!!) what have you, that even contains a perfect burst of love up to the sky for Bowie. Flowers no longer cites his musical cues in interviews but you can follow the road and see how it connects back to the other Killers albums and the band’s deep musical vocabulary. For, you see, he’s had these plans spinning like plates for years and years, waiting for the moment. Now, all is dance, everyone needs a hook, and party music is not just for parties, but is clung to like a security blanket all day long in troubling times.
The Killers understand show business. They came from nowhere and were self-made, doing the hard graft for years to become an “overnight success”. They were thinkers and listeners before they got skin in the game, and like good students, they show their work. They were human long enough on the other side of the stage to transition successfully and never get spoiled. They love Rock and Roll. They are one of the great hopes of modern rock music today, and they do it all with a smile that never reveals the anxiety of just how fraught the business is, how fringe the press has become, how vicious casual commenters can be. How the gates have been stormed. This is a band who went to England and conquered there, much like the notable (and very few) British music invaders took that beast called America and wrestled her to the ground. We all like something Other. Foreign. Weird in different ways than our own weird. Britain may love The Killers more than America, more than Canada does. This band are honorary Ex-Pats. The bodies in the John Peel tent, with maybe a couple of hours notice, knew every word of every song and even “sang” the synth notes. It was something. The kids loved it. The little kids dug it. The moms swooned, and the dads sucked in their guts and thought about maybe jogging. The victims at home, worldwide, heard the call and awakened to reset google alerts for tour and album news. The party had started.
This return to Glasto, a place The Killers have triumphed at in their rise to headline act, to an expected new record, to the road, and to a music festival environment in flux and a time of genre-f**k where you may be the only act on the stage all day that uses guitars (or knows what they do), where young ears are growing soft on ear buds and music made in a tin can and with a blender, not played or sung for real by humans, is not for the faint of heart. It needs men and women of steel up there, it always did, but the unforgiving nature of group think & hive mind which tells itself it’s inclusive and totally open to anything, border and label-less yet is impossibly DULL & passively judgmental right now, needs a firehose. In the form of electric guitar blasts and cannon-like drums to take people to school again. It needs impossibly tall, thin, eternally young, cowboy handsome 1950s matinee idols to crack a smile and make the world swoon again.
Synths are everywhere in music now, again. Perhaps they are the new guitars, at long last, math geeks getting their moment in the sun. Once, rock bands would have to hide their synths to retain their cred for a hard-rock loving, mostly male crowd. The rules were rigid. Post punk and British Indie blew that away, and now people play guitars wired to a bank of pedals, walking synthesizers. The Killers combined synth hooks with catchy, vibrant new Indie Rock that they pioneered right alongside The Strokes in that great wave of 2000-2006 that marked the end of getting our music, our news, and our cultural cues, from anywhere but streaming on computers and devices. In our own heads in our silent discos.
Something has definitely gone sideways since then. Fans should not be calling bands from 2004 “legacy acts” at North American festivals full of 75% no names (with no hits and no history, fast fashion) just because there are so few bold type names still capable of rounding up a stadium worth of bodies happy to stand in a field for the pleasure (or few that organizers want to pay what they’re worth). Things are moving too quickly, becoming fast food consumption instead of the way music is meant to enter your bloodstream and stay in your life when it is good – gradually, over many years, loyally, lovingly. Not just for middle school but for your wedding, for your road trip, for your hellish commute.
If you have seen The Killers live (as we have, 10 times in three countries over the past decade) you’ll know that their show is all killer and no filler: revelatory. as community-creating, as epic & as pleasurable as a live U2 show in the mid-eighties or Oasis in their peak years.
Even. As. Worthy. Of. Recommendation. As. The Cure.
They’ve crossed their own deserts and set out for the border many times and carved out a space in a little-understood part of a big country we never contemplated (aside from the Las Vegas Strip, which is also theirs to claim.) They refused to be a flyover state, or Disneyland. Their stage banter is completely real, but always with a wink. They made gold lame mean something artistic, spun cheese into sincerity, and pulled out all our favourite records with an eye on doing something like them, and doin’ it right, and they have. “Read My Mind” is a delicate, happy burst of inspiration & love that swings and connects, everytime. “Smile Like You Mean It” is a line worthy of a tattoo. “When You Were Young” is a contemplation that becomes a battle cry. Remember, when you were young? Remember her? Listen to her. Find her. She knew better which way to go before life & noise got in the way. “Bones” is one of their absolute best, and also, naturally one of their utterly weirdest songs that might have been the end of their “murder” motif (and has lately dropped off the live set) but not before creating one of the best music videos of all time, directed by Tim Burton (in the last instance of his classic stop-motion style). Everything they do perfectly balances glitz, quality, and truth. With sleight of hand that you might take for a fluke if you are not watching closely.
And “The Man”?
In 2009, Day and Age landed upon the world to an unresponsive wider press and public (but everyone still references human/dancer so it was a win). It was a shift away from Sam’s Town, but still sat nicely between it and Hot Fuss. The new wave dance-influenced and truly catchy record, it turns out, was simply ahead of its time.
Who knew that in a few short years Chic would be back to school everyone, smoother and brighter than we’d heard in decades, Daft Punk would be chart-topping with funk-disco, and the early aughts ball of energy multi-instrumentalist Indie darlings Arcade Fire would be settling into their slightly medicated sounding disco years? Well, maybe Brandon Flowers did. Or maybe he knew what all of us who never stopped listening to New Wave and Electronic music (we never used that label each band just stood for its own sound: New Order was not any genre but “New Order music”) did: that there was still gold in them hills, and that a return to the last great wave of Indie/dance/ Alternative (mostly British) was well past due. And it’s now here, in the form of the great bands who’ve never left, are back, and are reforming, to fill the enormous gaps in the music industry today with its overpriced junky McMenu. And in the form of a few newer bands (post-2000) like The Killers, among the few who don’t give us whiplash with abrupt 180s that reek of label coercion or an inner band identity breakdown with new releases, but do it with sense, grace and panache. The Kings. The Men. Never Dad Rock. Always lean and mean. Drumroll, please.
“The Man” is the song of the summer. For the summer. A song for hot days and long nights and a quick mini-strut wherever you have room to strut. It flows easily into what popular music has been heading toward over the past few years but it turns it way up. It’s better. It’s richer. It credits its sources. It worships its masters. It’s well earned.
Brandon Flowers has always written from the truth of his early years in frustrated obscurity, written madly as if in a private diary, which speak truths about the darker side of love and loneliness few dared to sing in this detached age. The Killer’s messages include thoughtful reminders about the value of looking back, the truth of the bitterness we carry, the value of innocence and curiosity, and need to take one’s own temperature. Survival skills, sounds of hope. The anthem in rock & pop and new wave music must always contain a “fake it til you make it” sensibility, that works every time and gets replayed until you’ve made it. From “Boys Don’t Cry” to “West End Girls” to “Blue Monday” to “You Might Think” to “Let’s Dance”. “The Man” is another one of those great moments. And it moves from the faux swagger to the real one. By god, haven’t they earned it? Haven’t you? To hell with it. Slip on a satin jacket and create a new walk.
“The Man”, like The Killers, also exists alongside the output of the dueling pop queens (we don’t cover here) of the last decade who routinely attempt swagger and street to accompany their really boring twitter feuds. It’s a bit of a wink at all of that, you know, you’ve gotta bring it, you can’t front. There’s too much fronting in music today and not enough rope-a-dope.
The new music is another facet of the great spinning disco ball that is this band, but with more chill and less new-century angst and free of young love’s and a young band’s anxiety. It has learned to be carefree. To breathe. It’s funny, and it’s fun. It’s experimental music made not in a machine or mixed in a blender and shipped from a faraway lair with Franken-hooks on a loop, but created live by a real band of brothers who’ve earned a season to play. But play hard to win. Get outside.
By Jacqueline Howell