Rock ’n’ roll hasn’t had a great twenty years. The genre itself barely exists anymore, and what we might have called rock in the 1990s now gets shoehorned into “indie” or “Americana” or the great condescension of “pop-punk.” But some bands have held out, proudly clinging to a fading genre. The Killers are one of those bands. They broke out of Las Vegas with an album of quasi-dance music in 2004, then developed a Springsteen fixation three years later and never really shook it. Despite all their inconsistency and their many failures — or precisely because of them — The Killers remain a singularly fascinating group, maybe the best purveyors of rock ’n’ roll we have today.
The Killers thrive on drama. Each of their songs carries an overwhelming sense of immediacy and doom, a fate from which their glitzy rock seems the only deliverance. Their songs tell the same stories Americans have always told — of savage borderlands, empty dreams, shattered promises. They have a flair for the visual, too, impressing vivid images into the minds of listeners. “I saw the devil wrapping up his hands / He’s getting ready for the showdown,” Brandon Flowers sings in “A Dustland Fairytale,” and that knife fight instantly appears to the listener, terrible and stark in its clarity. Lyrics that shouldn’t work succeed anyway: “We’re burning down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane,” goes one particularly opaque lyric from “When You Were Young.” The best line in The Killers’ discography is the prayer-like refrain from the biblical “All These Things That I’ve Done.” “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” frontman Brandon Flowers intones, backed by a gospel choir. I have no idea what it means, but he sings it with such faithful conviction that it simply must be some great truth. Such is the power of rock ’n’ roll.
The Killers have faith in a certain version of America that shouldn’t, or perhaps even can’t, exist anymore — a world of muscle cars and roadside bars, county fairs and antiquated romances. It’s nothing new, of course: just the American archetypes that this country refuses to leave behind, the well-trodden territory of Jackson Browne and Tom Petty. The Killers refuse to believe that America has lost its thunder, and somehow, in their own heavy-handed, overdone style they’re still singing those great American epics: “Silverado” duked out on the dusty streets of Las Vegas, stories of starry-eyed young men rushing towards some distant glory while red-lipped girls lean on their shoulders as the nighttime desert wind blows through their hair and the Cadillac speeds down the interstate.
Brandon Flowers looks the part, too: in his black leather jacket and crew cut, with that wry smile and flashing eyes, he’s the slick chrome American prince he once sang about. He’s Springsteen at Passaic in the 1978 Indian summer; in an instant he’s both Jesse James and Brigham Young, an outlaw and a prophet; he’s Jack Kerouac riding a flatbed across Nebraska. He sings like a man defeated, who knows he has nothing left to sacrifice. Only the Now matters — there’s no future imaginable and the past contains only ghosts. Brandon Flowers plays the character of a man who understands the meaninglessness of life but looks past it: he’s got rock ’n’ roll, and what else really matters? The Killers’ brand of music offers that tantalizing promise of total salvation, holds it right before your eyes and demands that you come snatch it. Just as the quest for the Holy Grail consumed Arthur and his knights, so the search for that American redemption wholly preoccupies The Killers.
Do they find it? I venture to say No. Some artists have, of course — “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin’s magnum opus, found salvation out on the turnpikes, where with just a dream and a Chevrolet you can reach the elusive Zion. Tom Petty probably found it, too, in “American Girl,” where all the hopes and failures of this broken land lie within the heart of a girl. And so did the Irish transplant Van Morrison, who in “Saint Dominic’s Preview” looked into the Rapture and glimpsed the American soul. But The Killers fail. Their music pulsates with a magnetic flashy exuberance, but it rings hollow and insincere. It aspires to greatness but only makes it halfway there. It clashes with American modernity, a world that so palpably detests the Killers, rejecting their vision as too white, too masculine, too romanticized.
Or maybe it’s not so much a clash as an uncomfortable reflection. The endless suburbs and developments of the American West, just humans playing at civilization in a vast wilderness, seem as tinselly as the Killers. I remember my father driving east from the Great Salt Lake, through Syracuse, Utah, while I sat in the passenger seat and looked up at the Wasatch Mountains and thought: People really live here? Brandon Flowers sings about Jesus in “When You Were Young,” but can anyone really imagine Satan standing with Christ on Route 66, tempting the Son of God with the petrified glories of Monument Valley? Or John the Baptist baptizing converts in the Great Salt Lake? Or Saint Paul evangelizing along the Union Pacific line? No: as a land America defies the gods of the Continent. We create our own images here.
And so The Killers make music with their own particular vision of a higher power. In their music there is no God, only rock ’n’ roll and its burning intensity, which gives men the will to keep on. The Killers inspire faith like few other groups do: I can only venture to say that My Chemical Romance and LCD Soundsystem have had such fanatical fanbases, for whom this music becomes a matter of decay and survival. The Killers do the same for me. They inculcate in me a hope for America, for the promise this country once offered but might never hold again. It’s a fake hope, yes, the product of a stylized recycling, but it’s hope nonetheless.