ore than a few critics have knocked The Killers for recording a soupy version of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, but they haven’t suggested which Springsteen albums the band should have been emulating. I suggest Born in the U.S.A., 12 synth-anchored nuggets which get down to basics instead of shilly-shallying with poesy as unfathomable to Springsteen as it is to Brandon Flowers. Face it: “She’s the One” and “Jungleland” are silly songs no matter whose neck veins are straining at the mic. Whatever Sam’s Town’s scant merits, the album reminds artists to be more careful about their role models—and to avoid Bono’s phone calls.
While promoting 2004’s Hot Fuss, Flowers’ interviews proffered a hermeneutics of Mormonism acceptable to Teen Beat subscribers and fans of Duran Duran’s first eponymous album: he drank and smoke on occasion; he admired the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey; he tacitly acknowledged that, while the Killers may have been his first band, he’d had the smarts to hire three of the ugliest men in rock so that only he could hog the spotlight. If Hot Fuss was intermittently powerful enough to support Flowers’ pretensions, the album’s uncertain amble signaled that either The Killers didn’t believe a fucking word of their interviews or that they could mime New Order performances like their namesakes when the albums don’t ship platinum.
Sam’s Town puzzles, like Flowers’ new mustache. It is simply appalling that no one reminded the band about the album’s ridiculous sequencing. A reminder, kids: an “Enterlude” should be, you know, the first song, not the second. Burying “Read My Mind,” the album’s only surefire hit, in the second half when it should have followed first single “When You Were Young” smacks of carelessness or stupidity: Flowers can spell “hurricane” but not “gestalt.” The spectacularly named “Bling (Confessions of a King)” is a showcase for guitarist Adam Keuning’s imitations of The Edge, not Flowers’ duet with Jay-Z. The cautionary tale “Uncle Jonny” fails to work up a sweat about drugs or rhyming dictionaries (“When everyone else did cocaine / My Uncle Jonny did refrain”); it must rankle Flowers that Justin Timberlake’s recent “Losing My Way” deploys anti-crack bombast more affectingly.
Romantic tropes, as Byron and Kate Bush understood, are useful simulacra for coitus. If Flowers has had sex since the release of Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town is a woeful advertisement. The low bass throb of “Read My Mind” evokes the cumulatively desperate crawl of Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside”; but where Flowers limns the latter’s paranoid scenario in garish three-dimensional hues, the former has restless-hearts, promised-lands, and other Springsteenian table scraps that won’t impress anybody on a first date. It doesn’t help that Flowers sings his big numbers like a soccer ball had winded him a minute before opening his mouth—a damn shame, since a pip of a tune like “All the Things That I’ve Done” showed what a singer whose emotional range compensated for a limited physical range can do. In a touching display of solidarity with their leader’s hysterics, the band insert awful fills and accelerate the tempos on sex-jive like “Bones” and (really) “The River Is Wild.” It’s not that Flowers writes songs he’s physically incapable of singing; he writes songs that no one wants to sing.
An album as straight as Sam’s Town forces one to deploy grad school jargon like “hetero-normative,” but from the new influences to the performances this is a classic example of gay panic. Perhaps Flowers was genuinely unaware of how many men watched the “All The Things That I’ve Done” video just to swoon at the sight of him washing his hair (I’m not one of them, but he was dorky-cute in a ten-gallon hat like Dave Gahan’s circa 1990). Perhaps he fails to note the relish with which he bites down hard on the “beautiful boy” line in “When We Were Young.” Perhaps he forgets that he used to wear makeup and love the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey. Their susceptibility to a homo reading lent those early songs their soupcon of subtext. Despite Flowers’ gaseous poetry and weedy melodramatics he carried the flag for a new prototype: the straight guy who wishes he was as cool, stylish, and awesomely self-assured as he imagines his gay best friend to be. To realize this synth-swish/muscle-queen mythos, he will have to understand that Born in the U.S.A. showed a more variegated Springsteen than its mega-sales (not to mention Born to Run) suggested. The Boss also had the foresight to wear jeans as tight as the gates on Max Weinberg’s drums—the little boys and girls understood.