Two years ago, the Killers ventured outside their flashy Las Vegas hub and headed to the surrounding desert for Sam's Town, a wide-eyed look at America through the mythical scope of their dusty idealism. It was very big and kinda gaudy, and owed a huge debt to U2 and Bruce Springsteen. And it's not nearly as awful as all the backlash let on.
The group must have been torn over the lukewarm response to the record. On one hand, the album is tons more ambitious than 2004's synth-pop debut, Hot Fuss; on the other hand, it's tough staying motivated when no one's buying your music. So with the Killers' third album, Day & Age, we get the compromise: one part new-wave dandies, one part epic songmakers, one part conflicted blowhards.
Opener "Losing Touch" blasts its way out of the desert and back into the city with punchy horns and singer Brandon Flowers intoning a bit of myth-making on behalf of his band: "The legend grows/How you got lost, but you made your way back home." And indeed, there are more Hot Fuss-like dance-pop moments on Day & Age than there are Sam's Town-style widescreen panoramic views of America. Credit producer Stuart Price, who helps the guys find their groove again.
But Flowers still has loftier things on his mind. For every synth-driven Bowie- and New Order-cribbing highlight like "Human" and "Spaceman," there's globe-trotting disco ("Joy Ride") or steel drums and smooth sax weaving in and out of left field ("I Can't Stay"). Day & Age is messy, goofy and occasionally downright baffling. What exactly is going on with the Cape-Town-via-Vegas a cappella chanting on "This Is Your Life"? Who knows? And who really cares?
Most revealing is "A Dustland Fairytale," the sort of huge, sweeping Springsteenian opus that populated Sam's Town. "He looked just like you'd want him to/Some kind of slick-chrome American prince/A blue-jean serenade," sings Flowers as the music swells around him. It's spacious, majestic and pretentious as hell. It's also a pretty good indication where Flowers' aspirations lie.
The Killers are merely a product of their Las Vegas environment, so it's no big surprise that their music, especially on Day & Age, sounds artificial and insincere. But that's OK - even the big, storybook sounds of Sam's Town were rooted in artifice. As much as Flowers wants to be Bruce or Bono, he isn't. He's a gawky pop star raised on Duran Duran, grappling with his mostly out-of-reach ambitions. Like many other Vegas workers, the Killers are putting on a show. And at times, it's a mighty grand one.