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Born in the USA

I went to hear the new Killers album the other day at their record label’s offices. Sometimes record companies make you do that instead of sending you an advance copy of the record, because they’re scared of piracy. Which, to me, is like being scared of tsunamis or Carrot Top. Perfectly understandable, but kind of futile. Anyway, the office is located directly above the Hustler store on the Sunset Strip. It’s all so sordid, people. (Then again, I suppose, a person counts on the Strip to be sordid. There’s a certain comfort in consistency.)

Sometimes I feel a bit gypped that I never experienced the Strip in its fucked-up scraggly-ass ’70s haze — or its ’80s metal madness. Once, though, I did sit in the teeny-tiny wooden alcove in the backroom at the Rainbow Room, a little bird’s nest at the top of a wooden staircase with red-vinyl booths. I was there for some lame-ass indie-rock show, but I went up to the (roped-off) bird’s nest alone to try and absorb whatever Zeppelin vibe might remain. While I was there, the guy who’s managed that place for years came up for an illegal smoke with a bartender, and they explained to me that there was a time when the Strip was different. More relaxed, less money-money. I truly believed him. They told me Zeppelin and Bowie had sat up there in that little room. They also said nowadays weeknights at the Rainbow Room are better than weekends. I believe that too.

But back to the Killers — whose fab guitarist, Dave Keuning, is currently sporting a major Jimmy Page/Brian May look, by the way. (It is agreed Page and May are twins, right?) I want to be clear with you about the context here: The record isn’t out for six weeks, and I only listened to it once, alone in a conference room with large photos of Kanye West, Rihanna, Jay-Z and some heavy-looking rock band I didn’t recognize staring at me from the walls. A lot has changed in the record industry over the past 20 years. Bands like the Killers — rock-&-roll bands that by some weird glitch of fate manage to sell a bunch of records — are a bit of a dying breed, and share the conference room with rap superstars (who also run the labels!). And the label is afraid of pirates, and you stare at the conference-room walls and notice they’re dingy and no one’s wiped down the light-switch plate in ages. And the toilet in the bathroom is chipped.

I don’t feel sorry for the Killers (please — they’ve sold millions of records), but as I sat there listening to the new one, I did feel some sympathy. Human sympathy, creative respect, and concern, too. It’s a big record, and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it, all over the place — I very much picture them on the cover of Rolling Stone, with some “Album of the Year?” headline.

With Sam’s Town (a nickname for their hometown of Las Vegas, I’m told) they’re obviously trying to make the album of their lives — really swinging for the bleachers, and doing so with steady hands and clear eyes. They want to be grandiose and important, but they approach the job with appropriate humility. This is not a double album.

And unlike recent efforts by the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and White Stripes, Sam’s Town reveals a band that knows exactly who and what it is, even as it sheds its old skin. Also unlike those bands (maybe), you get the sense that this is a band that really understand one another, which is probably even more important than liking each other.

Sam’s Town is, as far as I can tell, an elegy for lost youth. (Lead singer Brandon Flowers is all of 25. Nobody mourns or overrates lost youth like young people, huh? I remember going to an all-ages Public Enemy show at 20 and, seeing the high schoolers moshing, I felt sooo oooold. Woe is me . . . I’m just a poseur now . . .)

Lost-youth grief, I guess you’d call it, is what gives this album both its weight and its wings — kinda like classic Springsteen, right? You may have heard that the new record is heavily Springsteen-influenced, and it’s true. Specifically, Born To Run. It’s in the lyrics (“You sit there in your heartache waiting on some beautiful boy to save you from your old ways . . . He don’t look a thing like Jesus but he talks like a gentleman/like you imagined when you were young . . .”). It’s in the arrangements and the vocals. The horns and guitars, the gradual buildups to ambitious choruses, the grab at epic Americanness.

Supposedly, the Killers were tired of being called America’s best British band. Flowers tells the NME that after touring the world for two years with their breakout ’04 album Hot Fuss, “at the end of it all, when we went home, it made me realize how in love I was with America.” (Word up!) But it’s not as simple as all that, because, personally, I feel almost as much Queen influence here, some Beatles (they bookend the album with ditties to the listener, à la Sgt. Pepper) and, in a less literal way, U2. Americans have no monopoly on epic grandiosity, after all — or even on Americanness (see Led Zeppelin). The Killers’ producers, Alan Moulder and Flood, are Brits. This isn’t a straight-up American record — it’s more an acknowledgment of the band’s American identity. Plus, Flowers’ sexual ambiguity, as high in the mix here as ever, aligns him in a way with the Brits. They do it really well, but it’s a rare and special thing when an American rocker can convincingly pull off that kind of ambiguity. (It’s hard to imagine the sex-torch anthem “Bones” is being sung for a girl.)

I truly admire the Killers’ desire to be great and important, and I wish every whiny little shlumpy-ass emo-indie hippie band (Crap Your Pants Say Yuck, for starters) would take a lesson from them. The world does not need any more wimpy T-shirt bands. It’s the same thing I like about Wolfmother’s new record, and even Muse’s new one (Radiohead vocals aside). Ambition! If you’re not trying to make history and perhaps tilt the earth on its axis a bit with your rock, then why did Les Paul invent the electric guitar?

Having said that, there is a darkness on the edge of Sam’s Town that is troubling. I mean, the Killers made this record on purpose, to grant them entrance into the inner circle of Big Bands, to break away from the dance-punk fad and pave the way for a long and successful career on their own terms. (“This album will be a springboard for us to do whatever the hell we wanna do,” says Flowers in the same NME piece.) My concern is that this record will be overrated for its good intentions; that everyone will think they’re hearing the great music this wants to be, instead of the promise of greatness which this album actually is. The problem here — granted, after only one listen — is that they’ve got to write some catchier hooks and stronger choruses than this. It’s a must. (True, sometimes the best hooks take a moment to sink in.) I’m just afraid that if the Killers end up believing this record really is Great, they’re sunk, and it’ll end up being their best record. Let this be their Help! — or, better yet, their The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle — not their OK Computer. Like the good Lord said — or Bon Scott, I guess: It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock and roll!


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