The Killers ‘Direct Hits’ – Review

23 Nov

This is the album Killers apologists have been waiting for – it’s definitive proof of their greatness. The band have always endured a lot of unfair criticism, because critics like serious indie bands and they like frivolous pop music but they don’t like serious indie bands that make frivolous pop music. The Killers don’t fit snuggly into any critically approved category. They have always been too alternative for the mainstream and too mainstream for the alternative. Like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kings of Leon and (formerly) Razorlight, The Killers are unfairly snubbed by pretentious rock critics yet thrive off a passionately loyal, enthusiastic and uncool fanbase.

The greatest hits format suits the band – their best albums are structured like this anyway; built around the hits, with the classics at the start and filler at the end. On ‘Direct Hits’, they’ve put the singles in chronological order, and it contains most of them (with the exception of ‘Bones’, ‘Here With Me’ and ‘The World We Live In’ – none are particularly missed). ‘Mr Brightside’ was their first release, and it remains their finest hour; In fact It’s probably the greatest indie-pop karaoke song of the last decade and arguably any other.  It defines the band’s signature style in that it evokes a series of musical and lyrical contradictions that somehow work together. It’s nonsensical but it makes perfect sense. It soars like an anthem yet retains an intimacy and edge. It’s about jealousy and reclusiveness yet projects ambition and unity. ‘Mr Brightside’ is a conflicted epic which finds truth in emptiness and contains more hooks than it knows what to do with. It’s also immensely sing-alongable.

These factors are consistent in all the band’s best singles. I can think of few groups who manage to be as deeply profound whilst being so deeply silly. In fact, the sillier the songs appear, the more revealing they often are. Brandon’s choice of costume is usually a good indicator of this –  If he’s got the feathers or pink tux out you’re in for a thrilling revelation, if he’s gone for the cowboy suit, less so. If it’s leathers and jeans then forget about it. Think of their most memorable lyrics: ‘Are we human or are we dancer?’ ‘I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier’ ‘Somebody told me that she’s got a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in january of last year.’ These are ridiculous (which is why everybody remembers them) but look beyond them and  you’ll see that, at times, Flowers is a remarkably switched on lyricist.

‘Hot Fuss’ in particular strikes a thoughtful note about clueless, self-mythologising millennials searching for meaning in a meaningless environment. Its tales of wasted lust, disorientation and fading youth are offset by hooks that come thick and fast; the production shimmers and sparkles, and very little is left to nuance.  On ‘Somebody Told Me’ our narrator’s in a dirty club of blinding lights, chasing a mirage and leaving empty handed. On ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ he gets behind the false bravado of the U2 riffs and gospel choir to reveal a lost soul – ‘I’m so much older than I can take.’ On ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ he is overcome with nostalgia for the recent past whilst the music echoes The Human League and a forlorn Pet Shop Boys. Brandon doesn’t tell you he’s down, he reveals it with the quietly sad imagery. ‘Someone is driving her round the same streets that I did.’ The title, and sunny hooks, put a tongue in cheek Las Vegas spin on the melancholy. And there you go – ‘Hot Fuss’ is their most succesful album partly because they manage to balance their natural flamboyance and extravagance with an ambition (that would fade over time) to be broodingly indie. This is what separated them from generic competitors like Boy Kill Boy and The Bravery. It’s also what made them more original than detractors gave them credit for.

In 2006 the flamboyance and extravagance took over. After the sleek and sleazy sophistication of ‘Hot Fuss’, ‘Sam’s Town’ was a rootsier and more Americanized take on the same set of influences. ‘Sam’s Town’ has its own set of staunch defenders but I don’t feel it stands the test of time as well as ‘Hot Fuss’. It’s both lyrically and musically overwrought and at this point the band often resembled a beefed up cabaret act doing a juvenile Bruce Springsteen impression. That said, its best songs are collected here and they stand up very well indeed. ‘When You Were Young’ is an established classic, but the other singles are less well-remembered. ‘For Reasons Unknown’ and ‘Read My Mind’ are interesting takes on the break up song, and the latter is a rare moment of subtlety on ‘Direct Hits’; its conflicted emotions of regret, ambition and anger are genuinely moving.

‘Day and Age’ stands up as the most eclectic and consistent start to finish album in the band’s discography. The three singles represented here (‘Human’, ‘Spaceman’ and ‘Dustland Fairytale’)  tackle dance-pop, glam-rock and classic rock respectively. Of the three, ‘Human’ is the one to pay attention to. The Bowie-esque ‘Spaceman’ is nearly as ridiculous, if not nearly as enjoyable, but ‘Dustland Fairytale’ is problematic. It marks the point where The Killers started taking themselves waaaaay to seriously. They would keep working on this overblown Springsteen impression on ‘Battle Born’, successfully on the epic ‘Runaways’ (one of their finest achievements) but less so on the yawning ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ and the average ‘The Way It Was’. ‘Battle Born’ wasn’t a bad album but it did suggest that when The Killers ignore their glam impulses and their indie tendencies, They are nothing more than a distinctly average arena rock band.

Luckily, the new material here is modestly promising. ‘Shot In the Dark’ and ‘Just Another Girl’ combine the dramatic narratives and grandiose arrangements of ‘Battle Born’ with the sleeker synth pop sound of ‘Hot Fuss’; they are interesting enough to suggest that this could be interesting territory to explore in more detail. Neither of these songs are essential (‘Shot In the Night’ falls short with a weak hook and production that brown noses M83 far too much) but they are hints that ‘Direct Hits’ won’t be the band’s final statement. On these two songs at least, The Killers still sound and look like a young band. They have a relevance most bands approaching their second decade simply do not have. ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ could have been released ten years ago, but they equally could have been released yesterday. They sound that fresh. In a sense that makes ‘Direct Hits’ a rather redundant record – these songs are still very much in the public consciousness and The Killers are more popular and appreciated now than they’ve ever been (in the UK at least). If ‘Direct Hits’ is meant to sum up a band’s achievements then this works well, if it’s meant to remind their audience that The Killers still exist then it isn’t needed in the first place.  They’re still beloved – just go down to your local karaoke bar or propoganda club night if you want evidence.

9/10

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