Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Killers - Direct Hits

The “greatest hits” package is a strange kind of animal in the music world. There was a time when hits collections were vital, when compilation albums ended up being the definitive compendium of the artists they were supposed to chronicle, because, at that time, singles ruled the day and albums hadn’t become a popular format yet. The early players, artists like Elvis or Chuck Berry or all of those great fifties girl groups, they’re immortalized to us today by their hit packages, not by canonical albums. Still, even as recently as the early 2000s, the “greatest hits” format remained a staple of pop culture. The Beatles 1 was a monumental seller for years after it released in 2000 and there are definitely bands from the 1990s—and especially the 1980s (Journey, anyone?)—whose hit selections seem like their definitive albums. For some listeners, the greatest hits line of thinking has always worked. After all, why buy a whole collection of albums when you can get all the songs anyone cares about on one or two discs?

Greatest hits packages make a good deal less sense in the modern age, when consumers can easily buy singles and ignore albums on iTunes. When it comes to a band like the Killers, who arguably had the last decade’s most impressive run of mainstream radio singles, it’s not hard to imagine a plethora of iPods out there already stocked with the staples like “Mr. Brightside” and “When You Were Young” and nothing else from they albums they came from. For that reason, Direct Hits, the band’s first official greatest hits collection, feels a bit bizarre. This isn’t a “best of”; it’s not an artist-curated look back at a monumentally successful decade, not something like Counting Crows’ wonderful Films About Ghosts, which balanced deep cut favorites with all the big radio smashes for a satisfying mixtape-esque patchwork of that band’s first decade.

Indeed, Films About Ghosts was the kind of compilation that felt essential even if you owned all of the band’s records, largely because the order was interesting and unique and some of the song choices completely out of left field. In comparison, Direct Hits feels positively lazy. The selections could not be more predictable and the order—a “chronological” tracklisting that groups hits from each album together so that each has their own clear “segment” in the proceedings—is as mundane as could be. With a few exceptions and exclusions, each album is laid out with its biggest hit first and its most minor hit last. So “Mr. Brightside” is the opener, followed by “Somebody Told Me,” then “Smile Like You Mean It,” and finally “All These Things That I’ve Done.” Rinse and repeat with the other three albums based on their mainstream success.

Despite the disappointing order, though, it’s hard to find much fault with Direct Hits from a pure musical perspective. While the package may feel unnecessary, it still gives the Killers a chance to line up their entire bulletproof run of singles on one disc, and hearing all of these songs together is nothing if not impressive. Back around the time Sam’s Town came out, I remember my brother saying that, if he combined the best songs from Hot Fuss and its follow-up into one album, it would have been one of his top five favorite albums of all time. Since then, we’ve gotten two additional Killers albums, but the band’s trend of pretty much releasing all of their best songs as singles results in a greatest hits package that is far richer and more indelible than it has any right to be. After all, this band is only four albums and ten years into their career.

While the songs don’t really work together as a cohesive set—and therefore probably wouldn’t quite satisfy what my brother pictured back in the Sam’s Town days—Direct Hits does give a striking portrait of the interesting manner in which this band developed. After coming together with a shared passion for the larger-than-life arena rock of Oasis, the Killers set to work on their debut, slinging Vegas dance floor pop and synth-driven new wave. Nearly everyone loved the eighties throwback sound in 2004, and the Killers were at the forefront of it with hits like “Somebody Told Me” and “Smile Like You Mean It.” On Hot Fuss’s best song, “All These Things That I’ve Done,” frontman Brandon Flowers blended Jagger’s swagger and Springsteen’s conviction into one of the most powerful rock anthems of the decade. “All These Things” was the first Killers song I ever heard, and by the time I reached the iconic refrain (“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier”), I knew Flowers and his band were on their way to superstardom.

If Hot Fuss was the band’s mainstream peak, then Sam’s Town has probably become the fan favorite. Originally panned for its departure from the Brit-centric eighties sound of its predecessor, Sam’s Town proudly traded the synths and Oasis guitars of Hot Fuss for a thoroughly American tribute to Springsteen’s Born to Run. Flowers got ahead of himself with that record, hyping it as “one of the best albums of the past 20 years” prior to release, and the industry responded with a surprisingly vitriolic desire to see him fail. The ever-respectable Rolling Stone led the witch hunt, publishing a scathing two-star review that trashed the band for so quickly moving beyond their gimmicky eighties roots, and most listeners willfully climbed aboard the hate bandwagon. (Tellingly, that review has since been deleted from the RS archives.) As the radio followers from Hot Fuss wandered away from the Killers, though,Sam’s Town formed a strong core collective of fans that has stayed loyal to the band ever since, part of the reason that the record has gained so much additional traction over the past seven years.

Unlike Hot Fuss, which can fairly easily be distilled down to three or four defining tracks, Sam’s Town is a record that is charming thanks largely to its sweeping ambition and epic scope. With only three tracks displayed here (the stadium-scouring “When You Were Young,” the longing Americana of “Read My Mind,” and the claustrophobic intensity of “For Reasons Unknown”), we don’t get the quirks and personae that made Sam’s Town such a unique and enjoyable mainstream rock record. The theatrical bravado of “Bones” is notably absent, especially considering that song’s minor success as a single, and there is also no room for the career-defining work of “This River is Wild” or “Why Do I Keep Counting,” both rafter-raising paeans to dramatic rock ‘n’ roll indulgence. In other words, while the songs that did make this collection are all deserving of their spots (especially “Read My Mind,” which might still be the best song Brandon Flowers ever wrote), Sam’s Town as a whole is a record that deserves another look.

However, if Sam’s Town is somewhat cheated by the narrow scope of Direct Hits, then Day & Age, the spit-balling, personality crisis of a follow-up, actually benefits from being boiled down to its barest essentials. While the criticism for Sam’s Town couldn’t have hit too close to home for Flowers, considering how much he relied on its derided heartland rock songwriting for his solo record (2010's criminally underrated Flamingo), it clearly had some impact, as 2008’s Day & Age was the sound of a band trying to please everyone. Such was evident from “Human,” the first taste listeners got of the new album and one of the rare instances of the Killers failing to deliver a stellar single. “Human” was and is a duller rewrite of “Read My Mind,” drenching itself in the synths of Hot Fuss as Flowers and company tried desperately to reclaim the cultural ubiquity of their debut. It's not a bad song, but it's easily the worst thing here.

The eighties throwback was handled significantly better by the peppy new wave pomp of “Spaceman” (also featured), but the best songs on Day & Age saw the band drifting further from the Duran Duran hooks of their debut than ever before. “A Dustland Fairytale,” the third Day & Age contribution on Direct Hits, was indicative of this shift, sounding a hell of a lot more like Elton John than George Michael, while the record’s other gems (the jungle chant arena pop of “This Is Your Life,” or the chiming classic rock of “Losing Touch”) saw the band at a crossroads between where they wanted to go and what mainstream radio listeners wanted them to sound like.

When the Killers finally gave up on pleasing the radio crowd—with last year’s Battle Born—the result was the best, least commercially successful album they had ever made. Battle Born was a shameless classic rock record, with influences ranging from Springsteen to Journey, the Velvet Underground to Queen, and the Who to U2. The three Battle Born tracks featured here—“Runaways,” a stadium anthem about a crumbling marriage, “Miss Atomic Bomb,” a yearning “Mr. Brightside” prequel about the naivete of young love and the sting of eventual heartbreak, and “The Way It Was,” a blissfully nostalgic AM pop song (and the closest Direct Hits gets to a deep cut)—represent some of the best work of the band’s career. For listeners who drifted away from the Killers after Hot Fuss or Sam’s Town, Battle Born is a good place to reconnect.

Last year, when I reviewed Battle Born, I called the Killers the best band in mainstream music, and Direct Hits proves that point. It might miss the late-album deep cuts from Hot Fuss, fail to display the indulgences that made both Sam’s Town and Day & Age fascinating, and strip away the thematic nuances that make Battle Born one of my five favorite albums of the decade so far, but it certainly doesn’t fail to deliver on the hits. Hearing all of these songs back to back is a reminder of why I fell in love with this band in the first place and why I still think they’re unrivaled in the radio world. Of course, they might not belong to the “radio world” much longer: the two (wonderful) new songs—the M83-produced “Shot at the Night” and the wistful “Just Another Girl”—may play with synthesizers and eighties influences once more, but are too earnest and arena-bound for the listeners that once embraced the tongue-in-cheek lyricism of “Somebody Told Me” or the one-note verses of “Mr. Brightside.” Still, regardless of where the band goes from here, Direct Hits is a solid, predictable, and wholly enjoyable look back at the Killers’ tumultuous first 10 years. It doesn't quite justify the existence of the greatest hits concept for the modern era, but it comes closer than just about any other post-millennial band ever will.

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