While You Were Away: The Killers Still Rock

The Killers have gone from "next big thing" to one of the more underrated bands in mainstream rock music.
The Killers have gone from "next big thing" to one of the more underrated bands in mainstream rock music. Photo by Torey Mundkowsky
It’s rare that a band’s finest work ultimately signals the end of its commercial heyday; in fact, this seems almost the opposite of what happens with most successful bands. With regard to bands of the past two decades, think Foo Fighters. Think Green Day. Hell, venture into individuals artists and you’ll find a litany of folks – from Eminem to Kanye West – who rose to prominence on the strength of their best work.

This certainly makes sense, considering an artist should rise to new heights with the release of its best work. And yet, the Killers – who are playing Smart Financial Centre on Friday night – are the exception to this rule. If anything, the Killers – commercially, least – were almost done in because they had the gall to venture outside their comfort zone in recording the best album in their entire catalog.

I’ve defended Sam’s Town at length, and with good reason. It’s the best album the Killers ever produced, one that was unfairly maligned upon its release because it sounded almost nothing like Hot Fuss, the 2004 blockbuster that took the Killers from unknown Vegas casino act to one of the biggest bands on the planet.

This is not to disparage Hot Fuss, one of the most unique, lively albums of the past two decades. It is the band at its finest – bombastic, grandiose, cocky, and totally ridiculous in the best way possible. Sam’s Town, released two years after Hot Fuss turned the Killers into the next big thing in rock music, possesses many of its predecessors characteristics. It’s a confident, over-the-top effort, but one that eschews the electric-synth vibe of Hot Fuss in favor of a more traditional rock sound.

With Sam’s Town, the Killers were essentially trying to make the great American rock record, a notion frontman Brandon Flowers didn’t exactly try to dispel in the hype-filled months that preceded its release. Alas, despite its charms, Sam’s Town turned off a number of fans, and while it went Triple Platinum, it was viewed by many as a relative disappointment.

From there, the Killers maintained their status as an arena-filling rock powerhouse. They headlined festivals and sold out shows around the globe. Flowers and crew have released three proper studio albums in the past decade, all of which have sold well enough, but each of which has sold fewer copies than its predecessor. Sure, much of this can be chalked up to the decline of album sales, but one must also accept the fact that some of the Killers fanbase eroded after Sam’s Town.

What they missed was one of the better (and more diverse) decade-long runs in the modern mainstream rock era. Take Day & Age, for instance. The Killers third full-length album, it was released in 2008, four years after Hot Fuss and two years after Sam’s Town. The hype and subsequent fallout from Sam’s Town had simmered, and Flowers and his Vegas-based bandmates opted for a more upbeat, almost pop-like sound. The result is a light, refreshing listen, 40 minutes of listener-friendly fare like “Human,” “Spaceman” and “I Can’t Stay," the latter of which is basically a reggae song.

The band went relatively quiet for a while (though Flowers put out a really good solo record during that time), and its next album (Battle Born) took four years to produce; for perspective’s sake, the Killers first three albums came in a four-year window. Of course, as the band would reveal, Battle Born was the band’s “difficult record.”

Whereas Day & Age was light and relatively upbeat, Battle Born is a heavy record. Tracks like “Runaways,” “Miss Atomic Bomb” and “The Way it Was” detail relationships gone wrong and families torn apart. Turns out, Flowers and crew do heavy and melancholy quite well, as Battle Born is an outright epic that would have served as a fitting end to the band’s near-decade run. Moment of honesty – I assumed that Battle Born would be the last Killers record, as it just kinda sounded like a breakup record.

Then, almost five years to the day after Battle Born dropped, the Killers returned with Wonderful Wonderful, which in typical Killers fashion, bears little resemblance to any of its predecessors. Hot Fuss was the dance-infused breakout, Sam’s Town the go-big-or-go-home ode to America, Day & Age a nice little pop record, Battle Born a giant dose of heavy. Wonderful Wonderful, meanwhile, is a band – Flowers, in particular – making peace with his lot in life.

Flowers is more reflective than ever in Wonderful Wonderful, which certainly makes sense. He is a family man now, one who isn’t shy about his wife’s battle with depression and the toll it took on both he and their young sons. Hell, the final track on Wonderful Wonderful is aptly titled “Have All the Songs Been Written?” Simply put, this is not a band unwilling to address its insecurities.

And this is what makes Wonderful Wonderful – and all of the Killers’ records, really – so refreshing. The Killers write music very much in the moment. Sometimes that music is happy, other times not so much. They are as human a band (no pun intended) as you’ll find, and it’s a shame more fans didn’t stick around for what came to follow Sam’s Town. Many thought the Killers were done. Turns out, they were just getting started.
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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