Monday, September 2, 2013

The Canon #4: The Killers - "Hot Fuss" (2004)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

Back in late 2004, I didn't really listen to any kind of rock music.  My tastes mostly consisted of rap, R&B, and top 40 pop.  At this time, The Killers were inescapable, with their first single, "Somebody Told Me," getting constant play on VH1, MTV, and various radio stations.  Their second single, "Mr. Brightside," was even bigger, solidifying the band as something that wasn't going away any time soon.  Here's the thing: I loved these songs.  I'd never felt this way about any kind of "rock" music, besides songs that appeared on various Madden soundtracks, and that was more a case of attrition than it was genuine enjoyment.

It was such a new feeling that I was almost scared to like them.  I remember wanting to ask for Hot Fuss as my Secret Santa gift in 7th grade, but I didn't want anybody to know that I was into The Killers.  I eventually bought the album myself (along with Jay-Z's The Black Album) and never looked back.  It's just a perfect set of catchy pop/rock songs.  The sounds of sirens that appear in the album opener, "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," were almost like a clarion call for the effect that the band would have on me.  Everything just felt so new, and hearing that throaty bass on "Jenny..." was like a baby opening their eyes for the first time.  After that was the endlessly catchy "Mr. Brightside," and then "Smile Like You Mean It," a wonderfully wistful song with arena-ready sonics.  But it's "All These Things That I've Done" that's the weirdest, most triumphant song on the album.  A chugging rocker one second, a piano ballad the next, "All These Things..." is a perfect example of the band's knack for deceptive melodies.

Hot Fuss has gotten a reputation for being front-loaded, but that's simply just not true.  The first half has all the singles, sure, but it's the second half where the band gets interesting.  "On Top" showed that they clearly had chops, and it's probably still their most instrumentally accomplished song, with the tight groove between the bass and drums, and the guitar adding layers over the low-end.  "Change Your Mind," the jangler that follows, shows another shade to the band, a midtempo swoon that they wear well.  On the other hand, "Midnight Show" is so huge that it's at risk of careening out of control at any moment.  It's the emotional highlight of the album, yet instead of ending on that high note, they close out with the woozy "Everything Will Be Alright."  It's a fascinating, but ultimately successful choice; the perfect denouement to the album.  The only song that I had a problem with at first was "Believe Me Natalie," the 9th track.  Instrumentally it's all over the place and lyrically it's nonsense, but the dreamy heartache of it all kind of grows on you after hundreds of listens.

And that's the key to this album.  Emotionally, it just feels so high-stakes that it connects on a visceral level, even when a song or section shouldn't work.  It's essentially the perfect album for middle school.  Where I would later find Brandon Flowers' lyrics painfully bad, the melodrama that soaked "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" and "Andy You're A Star" was really profound to me at 13.  The songs were so splashy that it was hard not to get wrapped up in them.   Flowers was never afraid to get big and theatrical either.  He dipped to the dugout and belted to the balconies without fear.  He even had a freaking gospel choir on two songs in a row and somehow we let him get away with it!

Many of the negative reviews of Hot Fuss were steeped in accusations of the band's apparent lack of originality.  It's true that their sound recalled the 80s in general, but they rarely sound like they're just blantantly ripping off bands.  "Change Your Mind" is a bit Morrissey-esque and "Midnight Show" has some Duran Duran to it, but that's not really different than the pastiche being done by other acclaimed bands of the time (Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, Bloc Party).  Plus, they set themselves apart because of how good they were at laying on atmosphere, especially when it came to their synths.  Brandon Flowers' synthesizer work blew my mind back then, and I've still never heard better synths than the ones on Hot Fuss.

So what happened to The Killers?  There are two things that ultimately led to the downfall of the band: 1. They were so offended by some of the criticism of Hot Fuss that they wanted to do anything to get away from that sound.  2. Flowers' ambition got the best of him, and he lost the ability to reign in his ideas, just throwing everything out there and trying to make it work.  So the band got really into the Bruce Springsteen and made Sam's Town, and while I still think that's a pretty great album, it was clear to see that they had lost a bit of their magic.  In 2008 they released Day & Age,  and it was fine, but I just stopped caring about them.  Last year's Battle Born was poised to be the band's big comeback, and I was optimistic after hearing "Runaways," but the album as a whole is atrocious.  They're a band that I'll always check up on, given my residual love for Hot Fuss, but I think their heyday is long behind them.

Yet I can't emphasize enough how important Hot Fuss was to me.  I read every review, checked out every older band referenced in them, and sought out anything current that sounded like them.  They were essentially my gateway band into the world of alternative and indie rock; my six degrees of separation.  Every band I listen to today is in some way because of The Killers, and although it may not be hip or edgy to say this, Hot Fuss is still one of my top 5 albums of all time.  Whenever I revisit it, the wave of nostalgia hits, but when that has passed, I'm left with a marvelous album that still holds up.

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