Pop Life

The Killers Never Got Over Sam’s Town, But That's OK

Killers frontman Brandon Flowers went big with the band's second record, Sam's Town, which received quite a bit of backlash from fans and critics alike.
Killers frontman Brandon Flowers went big with the band's second record, Sam's Town, which received quite a bit of backlash from fans and critics alike. Photo by Torey Mundkowsky
The Killers released a new album last week. It’s called Wonderful Wonderful. It’s good – not their best, not their worst – and it grows on you after a few listens. There’s no “Mr. Brightside” or “Somebody Told Me” to be found, a song that will vault the Killers back into the mainstream with plenty of radio play.

As fifth records go, Wonderful Wonderful is perfectly fine. I also suspect that, due to the fact that half the band isn’t even touring in support of the album, it may very well be the curtain call for the Killers as a band. Those looking to catch the band locally will have a few opportunities; the band is playing both weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival and closing out Voodoo Fest in New Orleans.

If Wonderful Wonderful is indeed the end for the Killers, there’s certainly no shame in that. The band had one hell of a run. Hit records. Millions of albums sold. Festivals headlined. Sold-out arenas. This holds particularly true considering that the end of the Killers actually began in 2006, when the band released its second album, Sam’s Town. And this is unfair.

In hindsight, Sam’s Town never really had a chance. When a band explodes onto the scene, as the Killers did on 2004 debut Hot Fuss, a sophomore slump is almost inevitable. Hell, even when a follow-up matches or even outpaces its predecessor, some blowback is to be expected. But, man, some people really hated Sam’s Town.

The reasoning for this was obvious: Sam’s Town sounds nothing like Hot Fuss. Whereas the band’s debut was a synth-infused, up-tempo party, front man Brandon Flowers and his bandmates opted for something altogether different for their sophomore release. Out with the synth, in with the great American rock record. The Killers no longer had interest in the next Cure; rather, they set out to make their very own Born to Run.

Upon its release, which can safely be described as much-anticipated, Sam’s Town was at best met with a mixed reaction. Diehard fans didn’t care for the change in sound. Critics derided the album as a blatant knockoff of Springsteen's first masterpiece. And the ever-confident Flowers did the band no favors by proclaiming that Sam’s Town would be “one of the best albums of the past 20 years.”

Turns out, Flowers was right. In hindsight, not only is Sam’s Town one of the best mainstream rock releases of the past two decades, it’s the best record the Killers ever released. The album is the band at its peak – grandiose, confident, over-the-top in a good way – all traits that define peak-era Killers. It’s also a pretty great record musically.

Often times, when a band experiences early success, their second album is a bloated mess that doesn’t really know what it wants to be, and thus, aims to be a little bit of everything (see Hootie and the Blowfish, The Strokes, Nas, to name a few). Sam’s Town, rather, only features 12 tracks (ten if you exclude the enterlude/exitlude combo) and checks in under 45 minutes. For as grandiose as the Killers were and remain, they were never a band to overstay its welcome.

As for the ten tracks? Not a dud among them. “When You Were Young” is an absolute heart-pounding classic of a lead single. “Read My Mind” is Flowers at his catchy best. And the non-singles? “Uncle Jonny” is a nice throwback, and the 1-2 punch of “My List” and “Why Do I Keep Counting?” showed the Killers are just as effective slowing it down as they are turning it up.

Sure, the album is hokey in spots, and song titles like “Bling (Confessions of a King)” and “This River is Wild” are a bit silly, but that’s part of the Killers' charm. Flowers and his bandmates take themselves so seriously so often, one wonders whether such silly moments are the band being self-serious or simply trolling those who accuse them of being so.

The Killers never really rebounded from the critical disappointment that was Sam’s Town. Subsequent records paled in both sales and radio play, and while the band still did and does headline festivals, much of that is based on name value and early-career hit singles. Sam’s Town has since gained an almost cult-like status in recent years as folks have finally come around to its merits, but the Killers had long ago lost their standing as rock’s hottest band.

For diehard fans of the band — confession: the Killers are my favorite band, and it’s not even that close — this matters little. I’ve enjoyed each of the band’s five records to varying degrees, and Flowers’ two solo records stand up just fine on their own, particularly 2015’s The Desired Effect.

In hindsight, the band should be commended for venturing outside its comfort zone and not simply recording Hot Fuss 2. For a band as confident as the Killers, it’s no surprise that, with Sam’s Town, they set out to make the great American rock record. What is surprising is how long it took the rock community to realize they succeeded in doing so.
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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale