Monday, 19 May 2008

Hipster Douchebag Music Recommendation Of The Week: "When You Were Young" by The Killers

So this month's week's recommendation isn't exactly a sensitive, mopey up-and-coming indie outfit, I admit. I think you lose claim to that label when you're signed to Island in the US (though, admittedly, signed to an indie label in the UK), your albums have sold 12 million copies worldwide, and one of your songs has been lip-synched by Justin Timberlake in a mind-bendingly awful movie by a hipster director. And while the band may be too big to be liked by hipster douchebags anymore, they certainly are hipster douchebags -- Brandon Flowers (the lead singer) in particular. Though he's apparently a devout Mormon, he's got a tendency to boast, and the jury's out whether he's an asshole or not. Though Rufus Wainwright mentioned how much he loves him at the concert we went to last year (and even wrote "Tulsa" about him -- apparently he tastes like potato chips in the morning. Mm, potato chips), so he's already close to having a free pass. And he's right about Fall Out Boy. Fucking Fall Out Boy. Thanks for ruining that episode of The Simpsons for the rest of us, Wentz.

But really, none of that matters. I love The Killers. Many have pegged them as just another trendy It Band like the Arctic Monkeys or the Kaiser Chiefs (sorry, Masticator), but they are at least a step (perhaps half a flight, give or take) above their cohorts. (It's interesting to note that most of their sonic influences are British -- in fact for awhile I had a vague idea they were British -- but the band's actually from Vegas.)

The difference with the Killers is that they aren't all pose and flash, and their music isn't just of the era. They have a gift for melody -- what initially may tick along like a standard rock track suddenly swells into an irresistibly catchy, hummable tune with a hook that won't leave your brain for days. "Bones," from their second album, Sam's Town, is a kind of 80s synth-pop tune, complete with reverb-y vocals and grinding guitars, but it's the brass section's repeating arpeggio that wriggles into your mind like an earwig. "Change Your Mind," off Hot Fuss, begins with a sing-songy guitar hook that never lets up and backing vocals that push the song into a beautiful, ecstatic climax. What makes the song for me, though, is the moment 2 minutes and 46 seconds in, when Flowers' voice goes up on the word "no," and for that second the song is absolutely sublime. Sometimes it's enough for one note to make an entire song, and if I had any shred of musical knowledge, I would praise that note now. "Mr. Brightside" is a riff on the kind of glam-rock nonsense I hate, but the gorgeous hook of the chorus transcends the same-y muddiness of the genre and becomes something both propulsive and beautiful.

I'm hard-pressed to find much filler on either album. "Why Do I Keep Counting" is a bit of a silly one-off -- it's apparently about Flowers' fear of flying -- but for a throwaway song it is quirky but also big and anthemic and feels serious and playful at the same time. "This River Is Wild," besides being (I like to imagine) an homage to a movie I secretly love, starts out fairly conventional but becomes more lighthearted as it develops (particularly with Flowers' delivery of lines like "Sometimes I'm nervous / when I talk I shake a little"). With most albums, even if I really like the band, I usually only love about 3 or 4 songs. With The Killers, I love or at least really like at least 6 or 7 songs on both albums, which is a testament to how catchy most of them are.

One of the Killers' biggest hits has been the silly gender-bending tale "Somebody Told Me," which is one of their more conventional-sounding songs, but it's a good example of a tune that will most likely grab your internal iPod and set it to "endless repeat," at least until a Moonpig ad comes on TV. (Warning: I do not take responsibility for any lasting after-effects of Moonpig ads. Do not hold sharp instruments while watching.) "Smile Like You Mean It" is quite nice as well -- again, the "da-DAH-dah" through the chorus is musical heroin -- though it doesn't get really interesting until the last 20 seconds or so, with the funky drum-and-guitar thing that's over way too soon.

But to me, their best tracks are two of their biggest hits -- "All These Things That I've Done" and "When You Were Young." I'm surprising exactly no one with this analysis, and I'm not even championing songs that weren't released as singles. Everyone's heard these two songs. But that doesn't lessen their power one jot, and it provides a useful platform for the difference between the two albums.

Hot Fuss, as I mentioned, was The Killers' debut album, and critics fell over each other attempting to be the first to throw accolades at the hot new band and crown them the new kings of indie rock. Their take on glam-rock and 80s and 90s British sounds was a brilliant debut; I certainly won't dispute that. As I said, they're a cut above many other bands with a similar sound. But I can't help feeling that the fact that that sound is trendy is the reason they became critics' darlings in the first place. They did that sound, and they did it well, but deviation was not allowed. When Sam's Town came out two years later, suddenly critics were declaring a sophomore slump. The band had -- gasp! -- changed their sound so that they could grow musically. My God what did those little punks think they were playing at? They didn't even ask for permission! And who were they moving towards sonically? Bruce Springsteen! The nerve! Didn't they get the memo? Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady were already filling that slot! How dare The Killers move out of their allotted indie ghetto?

It really puzzles me why The Killers got so much shit for sounding more like intelligent arena rock when other bands were being slavishly praised for sounding like intelligent arena rock. Ugh. Well, if this flaw is what's keeping me away from reading more Pitchfork, then really it's a virtue in disguise.

All right, enough preamble. On to the good stuff. Amazingly, I managed to miss "When You Were Young"'s chart dominance, and I only noticed it because it was a song on Guitar Hero III. Obviously this means it's a rock classic already and doesn't need any defense from me, but I loved it so much that I kept playing it over and over, even though the song's pretty easy and I'd already gotten five stars on the first try (okay, on Medium, not Expert). Meet me after the somewhat bizarre video and I'll explain why.

The appeal of the shimmering guitar is obvious in the first few seconds -- and the first progression up the scale after the first verse is one of the most addictive hooks I've ever heard. I can't describe how satisfying it is to actually feel like you're playing those notes in the game, to feel as if you actually have a part in creating this stunning piece of pop perfection. The song's lyrics are full of sadness and longing, but it fills you with such joy that it's hard not to want to simply get lost in the music.

The song is definitely reminiscent of Springsteen, but for all the right reasons -- the propulsive, driving guitars, the swelling anthemic chorus, the emotional vocals, the shimmering little bells you can hear at the very top of the song that make the whole thing, make it feel big and magical and epic. Lines like "We're burning down the highway skyline on the back of a hurricane / that started turning when you were young" are very Springsteen-esque (Springsteinian?), but that's no flaw -- they too make the song feel epic and grand. They make the lives of a few small, ordinary people feel like the grand sweep of tragic and beautiful Americana.

It's a coin toss whether I prefer this one to "All These Things That I've Done" -- right now I think the latter is winning, but only because I haven't listened to it quite as much and I think it's a little fresher in my mind. But ask me another day and I'll have reconsidered. At any rate, here's the UK video, which was made earlier (the US one is here; it can't be embedded because of evil corporate grumblegrumble).

It's an accurate representation of the progression of a typical Saturday night in London, albeit with 50% less stabbing. It was obviously made on the cheap, and is meant to make the band seem like hip indie kids who are too cool to make a real video. Or it's incredibly lazy, as it was clearly made in a couple of hours before a concert. (I must mention, though, how nice it is to be writing about a band that's actually popular enough to have videos. The way forward.)

The standout section of this song is obvious -- the repetition of the line "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" has already become iconic, and deservedly so. It's so iconic that, as I mentioned, Justin Timberlake somewhat creepily lip-synchs it here. I don't know whether to be impressed with Richard Kelly for such a bold move or disgusted with him for appropriating a popular song in a bizarre context -- but then I haven't seen what by all accounts is a hot mess of a movie, so I shouldn't judge (yet). [The lipsynch scene is the non-Rock highlight of that awful awful awful awful awful movie, but it's little more than a video slotted into the movie for no reason. - Neck] I am, however, pissed off with the crappy TV series Jericho for using this song over the first few minutes of its first episode, thus making me like it instantly, then hate it even more in subsequent minutes when I realized that The Killers were by far the best writers on the show.

The Hot Fuss post-punk glam-rock sound is evident in this track as it starts, with a wash of guitars and cymbals and distorted vocals. I love the initial lolloping flow of the lyrics -- the quick rhymes of "Another head aches / another heart breaks / I'm so / much ol / der than I can take" (I love the way Flowers places an odd emphasis on every other word -- "so" and "older," sliding the latter from one line to the next with an oddly syncopated rhythm), and then the relief of the chorus, with more odd rhythm in the line "Don't you put me on the back burner."

Then we have the bridge, which just begs to be sung by thousands of people yelling their lungs out in a concert. It's one of those electrifying moments that gives you chills when you're listening to it alone (it's one of my favorite songs to listen to as I'm walking around London) but would be absolutely transcendent when sung in a chorus with thousands of other people. This, I think, is the Killers' real talent -- creating songs that are at once personal and anthemic, songs that are just as much fun to listen to by yourself, even as they have such scope and power that you know seeing them performed live would be like seeing them achieve the musical equivalent of self-actualization.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could not like this song, though I'm sure there are plenty out there who can't stand it. But it's a galvanizing tune, and it's irresistibly danceable -- I defy you not to start dancing a little in your chair as you listen. The Killers are playing in England soon, but unfortunately only in festivals in Reading and Leeds and not in London (as much as I like the idea of hearing The Killers in concert, festivals are not my bag, baby). But I'm sure they'll be around soon enough, and then my hipster douchebag fantasies will be complete.

1 comment:

The Judge said...

My two favourite Killers songs too! I saw them at Leeds a couple of years ago - you can get day tickets and just go and see them, you know. They're worth it. Glitternova x