Albums / EPs, Reviews

Throwback Thursday: The Killers – Hot Fuss

In August last year, American sports and music website Grantland announced an audacious, brazen…

In August last year, American sports and music website Grantland announced an audacious, brazen undertaking: they would facilitate an election (of sorts) of the Best Song of this Millennium. Being the sports-focussed website that they are, they used the idea of a knock-out bracket, kind of like the NBA playoffs. The millennium to date was split into four sections, broken up by years (2000-2003, 2004-2007, 2008-2010, and 2011-2013) and the songs that were eligible for voting were entirely picked by Grantand staff, 64 songs in total. From there, the songs would be pitted against each other, one-vs-one, with voters asked to decide on which was superior.

In many respects, the competition was undertaken with tongue placed firmly in cheek, and it was subtitled “totally arbitrary, completely ridiculous, [and] utterly infuriating.” In another sense, it was a brutally honest purveyor of cultural opinion. Of course, “whose culture?” can be answered in this instance with “people who read websites devoted to both sports and music”, and, given Grantland’s general positioning, more crudely with “white men”. Although each bracket had tens of thousands of votes and ended up attracting fascination from many people who weren’t typical Grantland devotees, it was still obviously limited by its own scope. 

Despite all of this, it attracted a lot of attention from various corners. And during its course, something happened in the competition that nobody expected. The Killer’s ‘Mr Brightside’ won the 2004-2007 bracket, which included Kanye’s ‘Jesus Walks’, MIA’s ‘Paper Planes’ and Usher’s ‘Yeah’. It lost out only in the semi-final against the eventual winner, Outkast’s ‘Hey Ya’. This run surprised as many people as it infuriated: who in their right minds would possibly allow a band like The Killers to be in the running for the song that defines the past 14 years?

Tens of thousands of people, it turns out. ‘Mr Brightside’’s ubiquity and popularity can be well explained by excessive radio play, a decadent video that came out at a time when MTV was still a big part of young music listeners’ audio-visual diet, and frequent use as a 2am drunk-emotion-stirrer. But heard in the context of the LP it was taken from it becomes even more understandable.

That album, Hot Fuss, is ten years old this week. In the time since it was released, The Killers have been nominated for seven Grammys, released three albums, headlined shows on every continent except Antarctica and begun what appears could be a protracted fading into obscurity. But while Brandon Flowers, his fur coat, and his bandmates have continued to slink ever lower in people’s estimations (and backward in their memories), Hot Fuss remains the band’s defining achievement, a majestic moment when timing and creative inspiration coincided to create one of the most irrefutable pop albums of the last two decades.

Listening to Hot Fuss ten years later, the most fascinating thing about it is how complete it somehow sounded. It was, after all, their debut, and while they had existed for three years prior to its release, it is still rare to hear a sonic introduction as thoroughly waxed. Right from the first propulsive guitar of ‘Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’, The Killers sound preternaturally assured. ‘Mr Brightside’ is the unquestionable centre piece, and placing it second on the track list would kill most albums, but Hot Fuss was so packed to the brim with unrelenting singles that it didn’t matter one bit. ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, ‘Somebody Told Me’, ‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’, and ‘Under The Gun’ are all instantly recognisable, with immersive synth-and-guitar backing and Flowers’ powerful voice and personality providing vocal hook after vocal hook. His lyrics were filled with aphorisms and allusions, but there are stories here too, about people whose lives play out with the far-removed grandeur of 50s movie stars.

‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’ might be the song and title that most explains the album and its sound. In 2004, ‘indie rock’ as a genre with a defining sound and modus operandi hadn’t quite reached the saturation point it would a few years later, and wasn’t yet the cultural behemoth it would turn out to be (Garden State only came out three weeks after the album). Hot Fuss was indie rock done in the fashion of the Killers’ hometown, Las Vegas: theatricalised, driven to extremes, stripped of subtlety, commodifed, and impossible to resist.

Flowers was at the centre of it all. It always felt like he was entirely responsible for every flaw as well as every cathartic swell. The band’s Joy Division aspirations are worn heavily (their name is derived from a fictional band portrayed in a New Order music video) and it is these ambitions that seemed to drive them at their best. Flowers is frequently prone to penning awkward lyrics, but here that is overpowered by the sense of urgency felt in his voice. There is a desperate edge that hints at a well-subdued brutality, and it is accessed on tracks like ‘Mr Brightside’ and ‘Under The Gun’. He is certainly no Ian Curtis, but at his best he does still manage to feel like a wholly absorbing figure on his own.

In the wake of the Grantland saga, Pitchfork writer Ian Cohen tweeted of The Killers: ‘They were the Haim before Haim… Blatant careerism, undeniable singles, silly videos, hushed whispers about religious upbringing.” The careerism goes a way to explaining Hot Fuss’s polished sound and was on display when they released a greatest hits album at the end of last year after only four proper LPs. For all its success, Hot Fuss would prove to be The Killers’ double-edged sword called Zenith. They were never a band who found inspiration in innovation and thus never sought to open sonic doors, cross divides or build new bridges to future sounds. As other musicians continued to batter down the hatchet to new frontiers, The Killers started to feel more and more like they were being left behind. When 2012’s Battle Born came out, it received scant critical attention. That album was billed as a return to ‘roots’, though it retained the band’s bravado and lust for bombast. Unfortunately, it never comes close to matching its ambition, something that was a problem on all of The Killers’ last three albums. That wasn’t a problem for Hot Fuss, though. And we’ll always have that to treasure, no matter what has happened since.

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