Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Killers - Hot Fuss (10-Year Retrospective)

“I got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” Brandon Flowers proclaimed on “All These Things That I’ve Done,” the best song from what was arguably the finest collection of radio singles to hit the market during the aughts. That line remains iconic and sublime even a decade later, a cocky and charismatic battlecry from a singer who sounds much more like a rock star than he had any right to sound on his debut. The confidence may have stemmed from the quality of the song itself, a sprawling, Americana-flavored rocker that reminded radio listeners precisely how big and grandiose rock ‘n’ roll could really be. Or perhaps the cocksure attitude came from the rest of the record and the wall-to-wall hits that line its tracklist. Pop staples like “Mr. Brightside,” “Smile Like You Mean It,” and “Somebody Told Me” sounded larger-than-life on the radio, but on record, sequenced one after the other (with the searing drama of “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” offering substantial introduction), they played like the Word of God...or at very least, the gospel according to some once-legendary 1980s hit machine.

The album’s harsher critics rightfully called it top-heavy, but what they didn’t realize was that the top-heavy nature of the record was part of the point. Cluster all the hit songs on side one and make damn sure they get heard: it was the same strategy employed by nearly every act The Killers cribbed moves from here, from Duran Duran to Journey to U2. And with the help of a few Oasis-esque guitar solos, a frontman with Jagger’s swagger and Springsteen’s conviction, and a handful of the biggest hooks anyone wrote all decade, The Killers wove those moves into an album that will long be remembered as one of the definitive classics of its era.

For me, Hot Fuss was one of the first pieces of the puzzle. Leading up to 2004, I’d been a casual music listener, making mix CDs of my favorite songs and buying the occasional new album, but not really absorbing new music in any big way. That changed in the spring of 2004, when I heard a song by Snow Patrol (“Run,” of course) on a TV show and immediately fell in love with it. It was my first real interaction with the idea that there was music out there beyond what was being played on the radio and beyond the artists I had always loved as a kid. (The fact that “Run” would eventually become a pretty sizable hit in its own right is irrelevant.) I bought the whole album on a whim, after which Amazon started spitting out recommendations for new albums from bands I’d never heard of: Wilco’s A Ghost is Born, Keane’s Hopes & Fears, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, and last but not least, The Killers’ Hot Fuss.

At this point, Hot Fuss was probably a week or two old, and singles like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” hadn’t started to permeate the airwaves yet. If they had, I would have been sold right away and bought the album like Amazon was telling me to, but being the broke 13-year-old I was (subsisting on birthday and Christmas money all year round), I wasn’t ready to make that kind of investment. So I hit the trusty old Limewire, searched "The Killers," and did what I would always do back then when I wanted to sample a new artist: I picked the song with the title I liked best. That just happened to be “All These Things That I’ve Done,” which I wasn’t sold on right away, but which I liked enough – primarily thanks to the explosive guitar sound – to put it on my summer mix CD. Over the season though, that tune grew on me, with Brandon Flowers’ infectious delivery and the sheer size and scope of the gospel-infused climax converting me into a fan of the band. A couple months later, after having the singles drummed into my head via radio, TV, and VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown, I bought the disc for real. The rest, as they say, is history.

I remember thinking very early on – perhaps even on that first night of listening to the record, blaring it on my house’s stereo while I was home alone for the evening – that Hot Fuss was one of the most exciting and kinetic albums I’d ever heard. Here was a record that didn’t just open with a one-two punch; it blasted off with a one-two-three-four-five, a run of tremendous songs that still stands as one of the best side ones to any record ever. I could wax poetic for days about those five songs and how much I listened to them throughout that fall and winter. I could write an essay about the claustrophobic desperation ringing through Brandon Flowers’ voice in the murder narrative that is “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”; I could talk about how Dave Keuning basically invented a guitar sound all his own with the inimitable roars that kickstart “Somebody Told Me”; I could certainly cite my favorite line from “Smile Like You Mean It” – “And someone will drive her around down the same streets that I did” – and discuss how it makes me feel possibly more nostalgic than any other lyric in any other song I’ve ever heard.

Of course, though, by the nature of how these things work, the song I’m going to talk most about is the one that everyone knows: “Mr. Brightside.” Ask me to name the best pop single of the 2000s, and nine times out of 10, I would pick “Brightside.” That may seem odd, since I’ve already acknowledged another single, “All These Things,” as my favorite song on the album. However, while “All These Things” is indeed the better song, “Mr. Brightside” is unquestionably the better pop song, and that fact has made all the difference in turning it into one of the most unforgettable radio singles of the millennium so far (just ask the voters from last summer’s Grantland poll). “Brightside” owes its poppiness to a guitar riff and a chorus hook, both of which are, to their credit, sinfully catchy, but which are also standard issue elements in radio singles; in other words, they’re not what sets this song apart from the crowd. But what does make “Brightside” different? Why is this song getting the chance to go up against “Hey Ya!” in a poll for “best song of the millennium” while other, more critically admired choices are playing second fiddle?

The answer to that question isn’t necessarily easy to determine, though there are numerous possible explanations. One could be the production and the arrangement, which build a positively massive swell of sound from high-hat drumming, booming bass, walls of synthesizers, and more of Keuning’s roaring guitar. I’m personally fascinated by what Flowers does on the song, contriving one of our generation’s biggest earworm hooks from what is essentially a one-note verse melody (and a chorus that isn’t much more dynamic). Whenever I sing the song or sit down to play it on guitar, it beguiles me just how simple the melody really is. Flowers would change his vocal style around on future albums (much to the chagrin of the critical community), trading his indie-ready baritone for a full-bodied arena rock tenor, but here, he was still finding his voice, and that much shows on a song like “Mr. Brightside.”

I’ve been nothing but vocal about my continuing love for The Killers over the years – I gave their last album, 2012’s Battle Born, a more positive review than anyone else on the Internet – but I’ll be the first to point out that “Mr. Brightside” is a song that the modern version of The Killers would never be able to write. The band would try to make it bigger and more Springsteenian in scope, and Flowers would surely find a way to rewrite the melody into something with a more dynamic vocal range. Both changes would tear away what is appealing about the song, which is the unassuming grandeur of it all. “Brightside” is big and memorable, of course, but not in the way that something like “When You Were Young” is big and memorable. That song, the first single from The Killers’ underrated 2006 sophomore effort, Sam’s Town, was Bombastic with a capital “B.” It was the sound of a band trying to sound huge and getting there through sheer force of will.

But “Mr. Brightside” was never meant to fill arenas. Instead, it played as a hybrid between scuzzy 2000s indie rock (the Strokes, Interpol, Bloc Party, etc.) and 1980s new wave – a combination that a lot of people loved. In fact, the sound The Killers concocted on “Mr. Brightside,” and on Hot Fuss in general, is something that people still associate with the band. So many listeners look back at this album and say things like “I wish they would go back to their original sound” or “I wish they would make another album like Hot Fuss.” The funny thing is that, of the four records the band has released, the latter three all sound more or less uniform, while Hot Fuss stands apart, both stylistically and sonically, as a distinctly different work. In that sense, this record and its 80s centric style was actually the fluke or the curveball in the band’s discography, with the heartland rock sound of the next three albums standing more as their central wheelhouse. It’s an interesting thought that makes the massive nature of “Mr. Brightside” seem that much more accidental, like all the elements just lined up to turn it into a hit that people would still be singing along with 10 years later. In other words, the limitations and overall inexperience of the band, as well as the fact that they didn’t know what kind of music they wanted to make yet, were the factors that allowed the song to become a cultural stalwart.

The other reason that “Brightside” works so well, though, is that Flowers just goes for it. No freshman frontman, with the possible exception of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, committed so devoutly to a song in 2004. And it takes commitment to sell the lyrics to “Brightside,” which are simultaneously cocky and vulnerable. The entire lyrical feel of the song is warped, told from the point of view of a potentially unreliable narrator (not to mention total basket case) who is losing his mind as his lover cheats on him with another man. Or maybe she’s not cheating, and it really is all in his head. Who knows? Trying to follow the song’s flow as a cohesive narrative is an exercise in futility, as Flowers jumps from one image to the next in quick succession, even if that succession may not actually be accurate or chronological. His vocal deliver crackles with nervous energy and sweaty, exhausted emotion. He’s the guy flipping out as his imagination gets the best of him, the guy who could easily turn into the killer (pun intended) that we met in “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” (though these two songs are not, supposedly, connected). By the time we get to the end of the song, repeated histrionic wails of the words “I never,” it’s wrapped us so thoroughly in its web that we have no recourse but to hit repeat. And maybe that’s the ultimate secret to the appeal and durability of the song: it captivates and mesmerizes because, unlike many other pop songs, it’s not immediately easy to parse.

“Mr. Brightside” is the life preserver that has allowed Hot Fuss to reach classic status just 10 years after its release, but the rest of the album is far from throwaway. Many people would tell you that Hot Fuss is nothing after its first five tracks, that it’s a hugely promising debut that falls flat after its dynamite opening and gets mired in songs that are dull and unmemorable. But while the album is inarguably top heavy, such descriptions don’t pay due respect to the other charms at play here, like the Vegas-meets-U2 swirl of “Believe Me Natalie,” or the neon-light euphoria of “On Top.” The stalkerish “Andy You’re a Star” plays with homosexual themes in a similar fashion to what another 80s throwback band, Franz Ferdinand, did the same year with a song called “Michael,” while “Midnight Show” (not “Mr. Brightside”) has been cited as the narrative companion piece to “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine.” The bright and breezy “Change Your Mind” has largely been ignored and forgotten in the band’s catalog, but beyond the big hits, it would have been this record’s next obvious bid for a single. And closer “Everything Will Be Alright” tranquilizes the band’s sound for a dreary slow dance of a closer - the weakest moment of the record, but a fitting conclusion nonetheless.

Looking back over the past decade and recalling how many times I’ve listened to Hot Fuss, how many different memories it carries, it’s difficult to believe that the album is already 10 years old. I remember the day I bought this record; I remember seeing music video premieres for its songs; I remember hearing “Mr. Brightside” on the radio during a 2004 New Year’s Eve countdown of the year’s biggest hits. I remember so many things about 2004, about how this record was, as I said earlier, one of "the first pieces of the puzzle" (along with Butch Walker’s Letters, Jimmy Eat World’s Futures, Green Day’s American Idiot, Keane’s Hopes & Fears, and a few others) that turned me into the obsessive music fan I am today. I can’t believe all of that is 10 years gone. I can’t believe I was 13 or 14 when I first heard those records, and how now, I’m 23 and five weeks away from getting married. I can’t believe how quickly time passes. And I can’t believe how it seems like just yesterday that I was buying Hot Fuss from the local Wal-Mart, but how really, everything big in my life has happened since that day. But of all the things that I truly can’t believe, there’s one realization that I don’t have any difficulty with, and it’s that all of those records are still essentials to me, still get frequent play, and still hold spots in my all-time top 50. Frankly, it may not be fashionable to love records like Hot Fuss these days, but I love them all the same – hits and duds, popularity and backlash, and everything in between.

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