Music fans are split over The Killers. Generally speaking, plenty of people like one of their first two albums, but not both; if you loved the part where they recorded the sweaty, coke-fuelled, dancefloor rush of Hot Fuss, you probably hated that part when they decided they wanted to be cowboys and recorded Sam’s Town, and vice versa. Me, I’m still struggling with the epiphany I arrived at last week, when I suddenly realized how much Brandon Flowers looks like Tobias Funke.
Seriously, look at those eyes. And the vests.
But that’s not important. What’s important is that in 2008, to relatively little fanfare, The Killers released their third album, Day & Age. It had one single that did fairly well, the opener “Human,” which was widely derided for its line “Are we human or are we dancer?” which I agree is pretty silly, but not silly enough to ignore the whole album. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much what happened; and that is a damn shame, because not only is Day & Age the most solid and steady album The Killers have made to date, it’s also possibly one of the best mainstream albums of 2008 (a year that also saw the release of Viva La Vida and Oracular Spectacular).
Lyrically, a lot of the album feels rooted in the early works of Lou Reed and David Bowie. One song, “Spaceman,” deals with alien abduction, and another, “This Is Your Life,” showcases a cast of characters not unlike that from “Walk On The Wild Side,” complete with bizarre chorus of nonsense words:
If the album is slightly derivative in terms of its verbal concepts, it more than makes up for that by changing the setting for those contemplative ideas. The themes explored by Reed and Bowie with chordic guitar work and occasional blistering solos are here turned into funky disco classics. The countryish/Americana vibe from Sam’s Town is gone, and in its place are pulsating ambient synths, bass lines so tight you could walk “˜em like a wire, and choruses of voices in complex harmonies. Except for the last track, the more ambient “Goodnight, Travel Well,” there’s not a song on the album that you can’t dance to.
Day & Age’s real strength is how cunningly it blends the sounds of the albums that came before it. The straightforward, party atmosphere of Hot Fuss is back in the limelight, but so is the languid, Western storytelling of Sam’s Town. Listen to “A Dustland Fairytale” to hear the two previous personalities of The Killers finally gel.
The piano in this song gives me goosebumps every time.
Most poignant, and possibly the best written track on the album, is the touching “I Can’t Stay,” with its images of Madonna and child and the incredible harp arpeggios sprinkled between calypso drum beats. As the song builds, strings and harmonies are added, a gentle saxophone line leads into the bridge, and there are even faint sounds of marimbas. It’s a triumph of instrumentation.
Bottom line? Day & Age is funky, it’s weird, it’s musically light-years past anything the Killers have done before, and it’s not at all what you expected from the Las Vegas kids who brought you “Somebody Told Me.” Maybe it’s true that sometimes rock stars grow up.