Adam Theisen: How The Killers were the last of a golden era

Sunday, October 2, 2016 - 4:43pm

The Killers

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I was wearing dog ears made out of paper and black eye pencil on my nose when I finally realized how powerful “Mr. Brightside” could be.

It was Halloween of 2015. I was dressed as Mr. Peanutbutter from “BoJack Horseman,” and I was in a Kerrytown basement with a faulty stereo system. The music was great, but the songs would sometimes cut out for minutes at a time — people would trip over a cord or knock against the speaker the wrong way or something, and we’d be stuck in awkward, disappointed silence until it got fixed.

Anyway, “Mr. Brightside” comes on, and if you’re a fan of The Killers, you know there’s no greater rush of excitement than those opening guitar notes. You hear them come out of nowhere and it’s just delirious ecstasy, with the entire room suddenly united in a sweaty mess of jumps and shouts.

And that was the reaction at this Halloween party — until the speakers gave way again. Except, the thing is, the lack of music didn’t stop the song. People kept singing the words, clapping along to the beat and turning the basement into a spontaneous a cappella party that lasted until the real “Mr. Brightside” came back with all its synth-pop spectacle.

There was a run in the mid-2000s where everything The Killers made was a pure light of golden energy. Hot Fuss, their debut, remains one of the most beloved albums of its generation, “Mr. Brightside” is untouchable and anthems like “All These Things That I’ve Done,” “Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young” come closer than any other band’s attempts. I think in the right place, they could all pass the broken-speaker test.

And I’ve been thinking about “When You Were Young” in particular lately, because it just turned 10 years old, but I don’t think any rock song since has had anywhere near the cultural impact that it did. The Killers seem to be this special band that hit it big with anachronistic, earnest rock ‘n’ roll, and no other artist has been able to use that formula to recapture the level of success they had.

The album that features “When You Were Young,” Sam’s Town, seems hard to imagine in 2016. After taking their cues from new wave British dance groups like Duran Duran and New Order for Hot Fuss, Brandon Flowers and his Las Vegas quartet rediscovered America, falling in love with Springsteen, cowboys and beards.

The result was a record that, despite being an overblown mess that too often confused loudness and overstuffed arrangements with epic power, was still very easy to love. It had heart-on-sleeve, unselfconscious song writing, skyscraper-huge choruses and a whirlwind of excitement on every song. Critics at the time hated it (Rob Sheffield infamously gave it two stars in Rolling Stone), but it has remained a favorite with the general rock public, especially as it feels more and more unique as time goes on.

There’s a small canon of recent rock songs that continue to be beloved by everybody, but that canon seems to end around 2006. There’s “All the Small Things” (1999), “Stacy’s Mom” (2003), “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” (2005) and perhaps “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (2006), to name most of them.

And then there’s The Killers, and then after that we seem to stop. Of course, I’m not saying that The Killers are anywhere near the last great rock band, but they scored at least 5 or 6 major hits, most of which still light up a party today. Bands in this era are extremely lucky to get even one song in that tailgate playlist.

And I’m sorry, but honestly, I don’t have a definitive answer for why this happened. There are definitely fewer people who listen exclusively to rock, which means an average band like Grand Funk Railroad in the ’70s or Live in the ’90s can’t score some radio play when no one else is making good music and get famous by default.

Major labels, too, aren’t investing in album production like they used to — I don’t know what the budget for Sam’s Town was, but it sounds expensive, and I really doubt it could have recouped its losses if it were released today.

And finally, perhaps, I think we’re seeing the effects of a backlash to the overwhelming straight white male-ness of mainstream rock, and a turn to traditionally more inclusive, yet critically scorned, sounds of R&B and dance music.

But I still have hope for the future. Rock music isn’t dying — if anything, with artists still on the upswing of their young careers like Modern Baseball, Hop Along, Mitski, Car Seat Headrest, Parquet Courts, Whitney and PWR BTTM, just to name a few, it might be more vital and varied than ever.

Beyond that, The Struts are starting to make a name for themselves with the kind of dumb, fun, beer commercial rock that still has a lot of fans, Walk the Moon scored a hit last year with the Hot Fuss-esque “Shut Up and Dance” and The 1975 quietly became Tumblr teen idols and released I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, the kind of overblown, ambitious, aspiring-to-legend-status record that The Killers were going for with Sam’s Town.

As fractured as the music world has gotten in the past few years, there are still some artists who unite us. The Killers remain one of them, standing alone as a rock band even a decade after their peak, and proving that we still love booming anthems and guitar solos. But while, right now, none of the up-and-coming young guitar bands have the special, ecstatic kind of song that pass the broken-speaker test, it would be crazy to count them out. I know we’ll be waiting with open ears when they deliver.