The Sophmore Slump and The Senior Rut

The Killers “Sam’s Town”
Grade: D [Updated grade as of 10/11/06]

Colin Hay “Man At Work”
Grade: C+

Goddamn! The Killers’ “Hot Fuss” was such a refreshing breeze of new wave nostalgia, wasn’t it? Do I need to remind you of how wonderful it was to hear the screaming guitars of “Somebody Told Me” come bursting through the state of pop back in 2004? Okay, to be trite: it sounded great! And then when The Killers followed up with “Mr. Brightside,” I was so pleased to hear that someone in the group had been listening to their David Bowie and decided that the time was right to reintroduce that style of music to younger ears. The first five songs on “Hot Fuss” really were golden, but then The Killers quickly ran out of steam by the time track 6 started. Nevertheless, I had those 5 songs on “high rotation” in my car CD player in 2004. The Killers toured, the became rock stars, and then the pressure mounted as they approached the follow up.

Sadly, their sophomore effort, “Sam’s Town,” has fallen victim to the dreaded “slump.” You really can’t fault bands for daring to try something different after an initial “hit.” If The Killers did “Hot Fuss II: Electric Boogaloo,” critics would have written them off as Johnny One Notes. But what’s the alternative? Well, there’s always the “serious” rock band stance.

Alas, The Killers have chosen the latter role and I’m sure they’ve found that there’s no winning, really. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. So, you might as well take a chance and see if your audience is ready to grow with you. If you have something to say, then your audience probably will warm up to the change. However, if it’s more style than substance — which is the case in “Sam’s Town” — then maybe album #3 will be a “return to the roots” album and we’ll finally get the sequel to “Hot Fuss.”

It’s not that the songs on “Sam’s Town” are awful, it’s just that they never really rise above a very generic sound. Many of the songs have all the right production elements to make good pop/rock tunes, but there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the catchy hooks we’ve come to expect from The Killers, the semi-robotic singing from Brandon Flowers, the anthemic build up from music, the…well, I could go on, but it’s best to illustrate this with some musical examples. The lead/title track, “Sam’s Town” (Download HERE) has some familiar Killers musical elements, but it’s difficult to “feel it” when the song sounds so hollow, both thematically and musically. The single, “When You Were Young” (Download HERE) has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, but that’s only because The Killers’ are emulating his style, but they never really delve into the culture Springsteen writes about –nor do they adapt it to mirror their Las Vegas upbringing. Out of all the songs featured in the collection, “When You Were Young” and “The River is Wild” (Download HERE) are songs where the group sort of shines. The rest of the album just leaves me shrugging and reaching for my copy of “Hot Fuss.”

Colin Hay, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be known as “Colin Who?” Instead, he wants aging Gen X’ers to remember that the music he made with Men at Work was something more than adult contemporary fodder. To prove it, he’s recorded acoustic versions of Men at Work classics like “Who Can It Be Now” (Download HERE), “Down Under” (Download HERE), and “Overkill” (Download HERE). But this isn’t just “Colin Hay: Unplugged.” He re-recorded a new versions of “Down Under” and “Be Good Johnny” to…well, I’m not really sure why.

Back in the day (1983), Men at Work were a good group who made some wonderfully unique pop music that had humor. The videos showed Hay in full comic/acting mode that branded them a made-for-video group who knew that in the age of video you had to not only write good songs, but you had to be interesting in front of the camera, too. When you take the humor away from these songs, you get an underlying sadness that wasn’t really present in their original recordings. It’s a sadness that makes one realize that Hay’s career could easily be relegated to cruise ships, where liquored up tourists sit in the ship’s B-list club sipping cocktails, tapping their feet, and wondering how the hell Colin Hay’s music became the soundtrack of feeling washed up.

Maybe The Killers should listen to this album for inspiration. After all, what is Las Vegas but a town where feeling washed up is sown into its very fabric?

–PK

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