By David Sason
Almost as soon as a sensational debut appears, the dreaded cloud of second album expectations begins to loom. Always on the lookout for the "sophomore slump," critics unflinchingly pounce, condemning a group either for deviating too much or not enough from their successful formula. Currently in the hot seat are Las Vegas quartet the Killers, whose new album Sam's Town is difficult to fit into either category. The roughly cohesive concept album on simpler, bygone days is certainly a departure for the band in its bid for maturity, albeit a forced one. But it merely modifies their path on 2004's Hot Fuss, which was a charmingly audacious revival of keyboard-laden, early-80s new wave and post-punk. Instead of infusing elements of everyone from New Order to Duran Duran, Sam's Town visits music from the previous decade.
The title track opens the album in familiar territory, with towering keyboards leading the slow-building rhythm section before morphing into a pure, Kraftwerk-like synthesizer lick. "I've got this sentimental heart that beats," croons singer/keyboardist Brandon Flowers, before admitting his sophomoric apprehension. "I'm so sick of all my judges, so scared of what they find," he wails above booming drums and guitar chords. What we find here is more of the early 80s, especially with the line, "I know that I can make it, as long as someone takes me home every now and then," a nod to early advocate Morrissey.
The time travel begins with the short "Enterlude" that follows, where Flowers blatantly informs us that we're entering concept land by telling us, "We hope you enjoy your stay." The solo piano accompaniment recalls Queen, and the Rich Little of modern rock singers gives a brave, decent attempt at the grand high notes of the late Freddie Mercury.
More glam rock influences pervade the album, most notably on "My List," a song which borrows from the bookends of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album. Beginning with slow, sparing percussion and piano stabs a la "Five Years," the song ascends into an elegant, gigantic celebration lifted from "Rock N' Roll Suicide." "Let me show you how much I care," sings Flowers in his best, purposely cracking, Bowie-biting voice. While the song holds your attention, the ending refrain reminds a little too much of Bowie's original, "You're not alone."
The Killers also channel arena-rock troubadour Springsteen, especially on the sentimental centerpiece, "Read My Mind." "I never really gave up on breaking out of this two-star town," Flowers sings, in similar dashboard-poet style. The song drips with Boss-isms such as car metaphors and mentions of "pulling up to your driveway" and, believe it or not, "the promised land." The song's E Street instrumentation and teetering vocal melody, though, make it the record's most enjoyable.
While Sam's Town certainly serves its nostalgic motif by subtle and overt sounds of the 70s, it doesn't fulfill the promise of Hot Fuss. Unoriginality actually seemed endearing in the delicious synth-pop majesty of "Mr. Brightside" and "All These Things That I've Done," two songs that nothing on Sam's Town comes close to emulating. Ambition is praiseworthy, but album concepts don't compensate for catchy tunes. And unless they use their talent to write more great pop songs, the Killers could come dangerously close to becoming just another clever lounge act from Vegas.
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