Off the Charts

The Killers

Until the Killers came on the scene, the phrase “Las Vegas music” tended to conjure up images of late-career crooners in casino supper clubs. But in 2001, when singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers and guitarist David Keuning got together to share their love of New Wave, post-punk, and rock, Vegas got a distinctive new sound.

Something else that sets this band apart is its shunning of certain industry conventions. Output, for example. In 18 years, the Killers have released only five studio albums. All five have sold very well – in fact, every album has hit No. 1 on the UK charts; they’re the only non-British band to accomplish such a feat – proving that their own pace is the right pace.

They’ve also made a very unusual decision with regard to personnel. The original four still write the songs and record the albums, but only two of the originals still go out on tour. On the road, they fill out the ranks with other musicians instead. Not many bands would have the emotional maturity to make that arrangement work.

By 2002, bassist Mark Stoermer, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. had joined Keuning and Flowers. They signed with British indie label Lizard King and with Island Records for American distribution. Their debut, Hot Fuss (2004), came out at a healthy No. 7 in the US and even higher in the UK, producing four big singles before being nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Album. The Killers had arrived.

On “Midnight Show,” Flowers and Keuning collaborate perfectly – the long-noted, melody in a limited range, contrasted against the meandering and frantic guitar. The breathless organ chords at the end put a bow on the emotional display.

 

One of the bonus tracks on Hot Fuss is proof enough that the band members were hoping to move beyond niche. “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll” is a sardonic dig at the twee independent rock scene.

 

One reason Flowers was fired from his previous band, Blush Response, was his impatience with doing synth-pop, to the exclusion of rock and roll. The second Killers album, Sam’s Town (2006), addresses this need, and is often noted for its heavy Springsteen influence.

A more complex production than first album, this time there are many additional musicians, under the eye of British post-punk producer Flood.

“This River Is Wild,” composed by Flowers and Stoermer, has a rich texture, almost like a Phil Spector track. The lyrics, though, deal with life’s nitty gritty, like something by The Boss.

 

From these same sessions comes “Peace of Mind.” It wasn’t included on the album at first, but showed up on the 10th Anniversary LP edition. The quietly screaming obbligato of Keuning’s guitar is quite haunting.

 

For their third album, Day & Age (2008), the band made the somewhat surprising choice of hiring Stuart Price, famed for producing records for Madonna and Take That. Price’s pop sensibilities helped make the single “Humans” into the Killers’ most recognized song.

The session personnel list is greatly scaled back from the Sam’s Town cast of thousands, bringing the focus back to the quartet itself. “It might not be as masculine as Sam’s Town,” Flowers once said about this scaled-down sound. Which is not to say this is a quiet album, just a bit more laid back, as you can hear in the almost Hawaiian sway of “Neon Tiger”:

 

This may be why “A Crippling Blow” was saved as a bonus track from UK/Ireland release. It’s as rhythmically strident as something from INXS. The lyrics seem to deal with isolation and the constant mild panic of getting through life.

 

For all the success they’d had up to this point, Battle Born (2012) achieved the strongest US chart position, rising to No. 3. The album had taken its time in coming. After Day & Age, everyone was tired of each other, and three of the four band members were itching to work on other projects. So, they took more than a year apart, returning to the studio in 2011.

A whole host of producers contributed to the recording sessions, among them Stuart Price again, plus another revered veteran of British rock, Steve Lillywhite. Lillywhite produced several of the songs, including the title track. The phrase “Battle Born” appears on the Nevada state flag, and the song is generally interpreted as a lament on the state of America.

 

Damian Taylor was the producer for the ’80s retro sound of “Deadline and Commitments,” quite a contrast from the violin arrangements on “Battle Born.” This song emphasizes Flowers’ floating upper register against the bare sound of bass guitar and lower-pitched drums. The overdubbed backing vocals of Flowers singing with himself couldn’t be more different from the big sound of the Las Vegas Master Chorale on the Lillywhite track.

 

The band’s most recent album is Wonderful Wonderful (2017). And it was their first US No. 1 album. Just before recording started, bassist Stoermer decided that, while he was willing to keep recording, he’d had it with touring. Guitarist Keuning made a similar decision the following year. So, if you see The Killers live, you’ll probably see Flowers and Vannucci, plus some special hires. In the past couple of years, those guests have included Jake Blanton on bass and Ted Sabley and Taylor Milne on guitar. An unusual arrangement, but it seems to work.

Speaking of guest guitarists, Mark Knopfler makes a special appearance on Wonderful Wonderful, bringing an earthy motion to the meditative “Have All the Songs Been Written?”

 

It’s only been two years since Wonderful Wonderful came out, which is a standard breath in Killers time. And there have been other signs of studio life. In January 2019 they released a single called “Land of the Free.” For those who doubt that “Battle Born” bemoans America’s current condition, there’s no mystery here. The official video, directed by Spike Lee and featuring footage of asylum-seekers at the southern border, makes it clear that “Land of the Free” is a darkly ironic title.