For almost a decade I’ve been in an ongoing argument with various friends about the best Killers album. For most, the answer is instantaneous and easy: Hot Fuss. I have to admit then, that I have few allies in believing Sam’s Town to be the best. However, amongst the friends that believe in Sam’s Town, there is a certain vigour to our defence of the album that is both comforting and tends to make me feel like we’re all in on a secret that no one else quite gets.
For me, Sam’s Town came at the perfect moment. Released before my insecure late-adolescence and the age of Pitchfork, before I discovered bands that were ‘cooler’ and ones that didn’t try as hard, I happily lapped up Sam’s Town sincerity and grandeur without fear. Even the process of getting Sam’s Town seems like an oddly profound and age-defining moment in retrospect. Unable to find all of Sam’s Town tracks on Limewire, I commandeered a friend who had the money to buy the album and they ripped the tracks onto Windows Media Player and burnt me a copy onto a real life CD.
Sam’s Town is a sprawling, cinematic epic. It speaks in sweeping generalizations and is filled with a cast of characters drawn from clichés of small town America. These characterizations and clichés are sometimes so obvious they are literally breathtaking – ‘Higher and higher, we’re gonna take it down to the wire’ or ‘He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus’. But like all great popular music, the obviousness works because it speaks to something universal. That the Killers repeat the trick so many times on Sam’s Town doesn’t jar and if anything makes the whole thing more cohesive.
If Sam’s Town continues to be a secret amongst my friends that no one else gets, then to most at the time of the album’s release it was something altogether different: a joke that everyone got.
Sam’s Town confounded and initially failed for many because it was unsettling. It unsettled listeners who loved Hot Fuss and falsely believed the Killers were a British band that should be aping Joy Division and New Order and not an American one that loved Springsteen and Tom Petty. It unsettled the listeners who, in the midst of late Bush-era cynicism and wars that were going no where, didn’t want a studied and sincere take on the “American Dream”, and probably preferred to hear about American Idiots.
Listen closely to Sam’s Town and you realise that this wasn’t an album that was immune to cynicism. Reading between the album’s shimmering guitars, the dizzying crescendos of When You Were Young, and the ambitious bookends Enterlude and Exitlude that made it absolutely crystal clear this was a Serious Concept Album, you can hear the cracks in the dream. Whether it was Uncle Jonny who was doing cocaine or the album’s jarring meditations on lists, counting and reading minds, it seems not everything was ok. Knowing that the Killers based much of the material for the album from their experiences growing up in Las Vegas – perhaps the gaudiest and most fucked up manifestation of the “American Dream” – made the whole album make more sense.
Maybe what drew people to criticise wasn’t so much that the Killers had failed to be cynical, but that the way they tried to articulate their cynicism was a little too sincere. It’s certainly more difficult to believe someone is disaffected when the soundtrack to their cynicism is throwing everything but the kitchen sink. If it sounds like an album that is trying hard to be great, then that’s probably because it was. Fuck it, they were sincere.
And that’s probably what continues to draw me, and many of the people I grew up with, to Sam’s Town. I have read so many shitty think pieces about ‘millennials’ and what defines us. Recently rereading a Bret Easton Ellis piece about the whole thing, I hit upon a depiction I probably associate with most: that his generation reacted against the Empire and historic wealth of their Baby Boomer parents with irony and negativity, and that millennials have reacted against their relative hardship with a craving to be positive, to be liked, and to ultimately be sincere. And for those who disagree us – the haters – millennials can always just shake them off.
The Killers and Sam’s Town works for millennials and me because they fit the template. Their grand, deliberate leap forward on Sam’s Town, trying to make a record about Things That Matter and make themselves matter in the process, is admirable. For the critics and listeners whose youth was marked with a drip feed of irony, the Killers claims to grandeur and their lack of self-awareness doesn’t wash. It’s no surprise then that albums released at the same time that happily traded in cynicism and irony like the Strokes’ Is This It or basically anything by the Arctic Monkeys worked better for the same critics that pilloried Sam’s Town. Certainly artists who have also traded in sincerity have found success with these critics – Arcade Fire and M83 to name a few – but they still work because they have lacked the success or soaring ambition of the Killers.
For all the deaden expectations that came with the album’s release, Sam’s Town has come to achieve its own kind of glory. It regularly tops polls on underrated albums (probably just millennials voting) and a number of critics have positively reevaluated the record. I get the sense too, that for some of my friends the arguments about the strength of Sam’s Town are becoming more convincing. The argument will go on, and even if the album wasn’t right for the times and for some people, I will continue to argue it was important to me. It does try to mean something and maybe that’s important too.
In spite of this blog being almost dead, I intend for the piece to be the first in a series of reflections on my favourite albums.