Sin City Simulacrum
There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be solved by what is wrong with America. When you live in a nation that proposes tax-refund shopping sprees as a way to fix a spendthrift economy, people tend to believe any spiritual voids caused by excess can be cured by excess. This is why esteemed institutions like Las Vegas and rock 'n' roll exist. So when a band who happen to hail from Sin City claim they've just written the great American rock album—which they name after a casino, no less—you can bet they'll fill it with all the right overindulgences: cocaine, guns, motorcycles, saxophones, operatic choirs, disco synths, a big, capital-letter message about Redemption, plus a personal guarantee that this is "one of the best albums of the past 20 years." And before you decide that's all a little much for you, the Killers' singer Brendan Flowers wants you to take a good look at his hometown, where God ain't exactly in the details. "Have you ever seen the lights?" he asks. "Oh, have you ever seen the lights?"
If Sam's Town is a parable about the U.S.A., it's not the one Springsteen was born in. Granted, the Killers' second album gives you everything the Boss's native land was built on: open roads, wild rivers, women named Mary, men who were born on the fourth of July, simple folks who are tryin' hard to do what's right. But there's a reason why you won't find one recognizable fast-food joint while you're hitching down Flowers's gravel path toward freedom: His America is no more literal than the Big Apple.
The Killers have always equated glamour with artifice—you can't brush the glitter off their new-wave debut Hot Fuss—so it makes sense that they chose two British producers, Alan Moulder and Flood, for a project that suggests the American West is only knowable as an archetype, a place where women don't have last names, roads are known simply as "the highway," and working-class romanticism is less a rock star's attempt to document the real world than to escape from it. Flowers is quick to remind you that his play on small-town authenticity is a theatrical performance like any other: "I looked inside/Running through my veins/An American masquerade," he sings on the opening track. And just in case you didn't catch him winking, Sam's Town breaks that fourth wall with "Enterlude" and "Exitlude," two Vegas-style cabaret snippets which find Flowers plucking his words off a hotel keycard: "We hope you've enjoyed your stay."
Still, there's something true about this nostalgia for a place that never was and a time that never will be. It's not just the Queen-inspired grandeur that makes Sam's Town feel like a relic from another era. With rock albums slipping off the charts and blogger backlash hitting well before full-length debuts, most bands' half-lives are short enough that many don't make it to the second-album marker. Which might be why, after selling three million copies of their first record, meeting David Bowie, and touring with U2, the Killers are already contemplating this mortal coil: "I look a little bit older, I look a little bit colder," "My heart, it don't beat the way it used to," "If all of our days are numbered, then why do I keep counting?" "Seems like heaven ain't far away." And if Flowers happens to wrap such proclamations around Greek-chorus backup vocals, Studio 54 synths—the melody behind the chorus on "Bling (Confessions of a King)" all but begs you to sing, "Do the Hustle!"—and one actual use of a gong, well, let's just say the music fits the higher stakes. Accelerated culture requires accelerated ambition. Especially when you've got Vegas to contend with, it's easy to forget that the biggest 20th-century city was once just a little patch of desert.
But as Flowers sings on "Read My Mind," it's still a two-star town that, no matter how big the Killers get, he'll always feel he needs to break out of. In a recent issue of NME, the singer admitted that the working-stiff allegory "Bling (Confessions of a King)" was written for his dad, and there's a reason you'll hear the word "fate" a few times in that song. Sam's Town keeps coming back to the idea that you are the place you came from, so you might as well make that place seem as grand as the legend you want to claim. Both in its Grapes of Wrath-style mythology and the scope of the band's ambition, it's a record about the American dream: What's most poignant about it is the fact that it's not wholly real. "Your prayers, they're not fables," Flowers sings on "My List." That may be true. But his fables sound a lot like prayers.
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