It's a strange state of affairs when white guys in guitar bands start looking like members of the musical underclass, but that's the topsy-turvy world of pop for you, circa 2006. In this year—as in the four years before it—album sales have continued to drop, and old certainties no longer seem to apply: Johnny Cash posthumously tops the charts with a measly 88,000 CDs sold; Christina Aguilera's new album falls short of expectations, while a Disney 'tween soundtrack outsells everything else; Paris Hilton's solo debut crumples upon impact, while that of a far less ubiquitous reality TV entity, Danity Kane, beats hip-hop superstars OutKast its first week. But one thing is clear: Rock is ailing. When Nielsen Soundscan announced the 10 best-selling records of the year's first half, only one rock act even made the cut, lagging behind not only T.I. and Mary J. Blige—hip-hop's chart ascendancy is nothing new—but also popera capo Andrea Bocelli. The act was Nickelback, and they were No. 10.
Brandon Flowers, the lead singer for Las Vegas-based rock band the Killers, has taken this dry spell as a call to arms. In the run-up to Sam's Town, the Killers' second album, Flowers began casting his band—previously known as synth-tickling, eyeliner-abusing fops—as rock saviors. He grew some scruff and started wearing bolo ties. He started referencing Bruce Springsteen and U2, rock institutions revered for their wide-angle sonics, chiming guitars, and/or copious highway metaphors. In one oft-quoted interview with British music weekly NME, Flowers said that Sam's Town would be "one of the best albums in the past twenty years." In another, with Blender, he told me that no other music could uplift the spirit like rock 'n' roll, and that its poor chart showing these days was mournful. For Flowers, making a Great Rock Album had taken on the aspects of both a protest and a humanitarian mission. (On this score, professor Bono would be proud.)
But all this gale-force cockiness and would-be nobility seems to have backfired, at least with the critics (at the time of writing, the album is projected to sell a solid 320,000 copies in its first week, earning it the No. 2 spot; No. 1 is all but promised to another big fall rock release, Evanescence). Released last Tuesday, Sam's Town occasioned one bloodthirsty critical stoning. To name just some of the most prominent hurlers: Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield said the Killers "leave no pompous arena cliché untweaked"; in EW, Slate's own Jody Rosen said the album plays like "a parody of rock bombast"; and in the New York Times, Sia Michel called it "a classic case of a young band overreaching to assert its significance."
What all these jabs have in common is how they're much better descriptions of Brandon Flowers' overblown vision of the Killers album than they are of the Killers album itself. It seems that his lofty proclamations wound up getting in the way of hearing the music, and that critics approached Sam's Town on Flowers' own impossible terms.
Like a lot of follow-ups to out-of-nowhere hit debuts, Sam's Town is bigger than its predecessor—2004's New Wave-inspired Hot Fuss—but for all the soaring guitars, it still sounds like a New Wave album. Moments of bombast, insofar as the term implies laughable, blinding grandiosity, are greatly outnumbered by fleet strumming, punchy, hook-minded songwriting, and Flowers' clipped declamations. He sounds far less like he's aping Bruce Springsteen, actually, than Ric Ocasek. Yes, evidence of the group's newfound sense of importance is abundant: They've ratcheted up all their choruses to an anthemic sweep—as they did on Hot Fuss' best song, "Mr. Brightside"—but song after song truly surges, rather than blowing out into unarticulated bluster. Is "When You Were Young" a Springsteen classic? Of course not. But it's a damn fine homage. That three otherwise pop-loving critics denied its immense pleasures suggests that something got in the way of enjoyment besides Flowers' grandiose sound bites.
That'd probably be Flowers' lyrics, peppered as they are with partially digested Boss pastiche. He name-checks things like "desert rain," a "two-star town" and "the highway skyline," and creates a small cast of characters with redolent names (Uncle Johnny, Grandma Dixie), whom we never get to know. Such well-worn signifiers of mythic Americana become a sticking point when you've invited comparison to Bono and Bruce, two of rock's most accomplished profundity hustlers. But it's hard to get that irritated with them in context, partly because, like most clumsy rock lyrics, they sound a lot better over riffs, and partly because Flowers lands his share of good lines throughout. He's great at bathing songs in an epic, if vague, sense of yearning: His repeated, "Have you ever seen the light?" on the title track poignantly mingles divine illumination and the strip's artificial glow; in "Read My Mind," the image of "magic soaking my spine" evokes the elated jitters of young romance; and the enigmatic refrain of "When You Were Young"—"He doesn't look a thing like Jesus"—is one of fall's best pop mysteries: intriguingly grand, even if you don't quite know what he's talking about.
The critical disdain for Sam's Town, preoccupied as it is with the band's overreaching, pretentiousness, and parody, comes down to a gripe about authenticity. True, there's something a bit silly, and obnoxious, about such naked rock ambition, but the Killers didn't annoy anyone when they were obsessed with David Bowie and Robert Smith. Only when their stated muses shifted to those Olympian deities, Bono and Bruce, did their influence-shuffling go from fun to shameful.
One of the most astute points about Sam's Town came from Sia Michel in the Times: "The Killers have created a simulacrum of an important album." She's right, but a bigger question remains: Is that such a bad thing? As Michel puts it, Flowers is a true child of Vegas. I'd add, fascinatingly so: From his New Wave poses to his rock-prophet affectations, he trades in vivid, overlapping personas the same way Las Vegas trades in vivid, overlapping realities. The band's great talent is that, despite their style juggling, they don't come off like smirking ironists or glib dilettantes. On Sam's Town, they bring emotion and ingenuity to their latest role. Like the Eiffel Tower outside Harrah's, the Killers' would-be rock monument isn't the real thing—but it's real enough to sing along with, and even, at points, to believe in.