Their first step was to retain a serious production team, Flood and Alan Moulder — two guys who didn’t just have U2 on their résumé but had also turned fluffy Depeche Mode into a darker beast more in tune with David Gahan’s tattoo’d torso and the alienated ’90s. Flowers dropped the British accent for an urgent yet weary man-of-the-world croon. The synths and bold, ringing guitar tones would stay. But in place of silly titles like Hot Fuss and “Mr. Brightside,” the new Killers would have an overall theme, and the deep-sounding thoughts that are the métier of the album artist.
And so Sam’s Town (Island/Def Jam) isn’t just the title of the Killers sophomore album, it’s the name of a storied old Vegas casino that dates back to the ’40s — the kind of place that would have been torn down to make room for a giant pyramid or a roller coaster long ago if it’d been on the Strip. Sam’s Town is the kind of place where songwriters like Springsteen invariably find the real America, one filled with hard-luck characters just looking for a break. And because the Killers really are from Vegas, it’s a title that alludes to a genuine regional identity. Las Vegas might not be identified with a “scene” like Boston or Seattle or Athens or LA, but at least now the Killers were a band from somewhere. Maybe they even hung out at Sam’s for a couple of weeks to get into character for the new disc.
It might not have been time well spent. Flowers has grown a beard to hide those million-dollar cheekbones, and everyone has some sort of facial hair to go with his unsmiling expression on the disc’s back cover. But as desperate as he may sound to reposition himself back in some rundown corner of Vegas on the title track’s “Nobody ever had a dream round here” and references to a brother who “was born on the Fourth of July” (that would be Tom Cruise, right?) and “an American masquerade,” Flowers delivers the song in a voice that’s as smooth as his chiseled features. And he’s backed by guitars as muscular as his six-pack abs.
There is a change in the general tone: after the rousing guitars that coalesce on the intro to “Sam’s Town” have dispersed, the drum-machine-like beat and pillowy synths that take over seem almost out of place. Yet before long, as Edgey guitars echo and Flowers finds his true croon, we’re back in the comfort zone, remembering how great that song Simple Minds recorded for the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club felt (to anticipate the title of the album’s next proper song) “When You Were Young.” Prior to that, we’re treated to an “Enterlude,” a short piano-bar welcome (“We hope you enjoy your stay/It’s good to have you with us/Even if it’s just for the day”) that a more daring band might have started the album with. (Unfortunately, that means the disc should end with an “Exitlude,” which of course it does.)
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