***** – The Killers’ Hot Fuss is Still the Pinnacle of Panache

Released in the early days of Summer 2004, Hot Fuss became an instant heavy-weight of the alternative rock genre. It gave the world something new to look at, and ensured that the Vegas foursome (singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers, guitarist Dave Keuning, bassist Mark Stoermer, and Ronnie Vannucci Jr for a drummer) broke from the pack to lead the noughties race for indie supremacy.

What the Killers did best, and still to this day succeed with ease, is setting miserable lyrics to feel good music. This is of course nothing new; the Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, the Cure, and a whole host of others had been doing so for the best part of twenty years when Hot Fuss came out. But how often do you hear Morrisey on Radio One nowadays? What the Killers managed was to circumvent our cultural filters which divide music into the two extremes of happy and sad: here, we were exposed to a new strain of sadness-soaked yet catchy millennium classics. And it was brilliant.

Opening track, Jenny Was a Friend of Mine, is a case in point and sets the tone for much of the following 45 minutes. Remaining a fan favourite – despite never being released as a single – the song is the final of three episodes from the so-called Murder Trilogy, and one of the two to make onto Hot Fuss (episode two, Midnight Show,  is found later on the record whilst Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf can be found on their compilation album Sawdust). The Trilogy, follows the murder of a girl called Jenny and goes unresolved within the album’s framing. Musically, the song couples popping, sliding basslines with a steady drum beat, all to underpin the ringing guitar, soaring synthesisers, and Flowers’ swaggering tenor vocals, Jenny is a welcome break from feel-good and vacuous pop. Dave Keuning’s guitar keeps well away from Stoermer’s bass, and Vannucci runs underneath everyone to keep the tempo. These rhythmic elements all hold hands and give the song a feel-good dynamic. Flowers layers a high-voiced organ to complete what should on paper be an infectious dance song. But when – and what – he starts singing it becomes clear that this isn’t intended to be a happy-go-lucky hit; it’s a horror-story told as a belting anthem. Jenny brilliantly introduces us to the four’s preferred formula.

Where Jenny dodged between solemn and sing-along, the follow-up would bounce across the musical chasm and dance with its arms over its head. Mr Brightside could be the subject of its own review and consideration, but here I’ll be brief: it’s marvellous. What Brightside captured was a keening energy, hysterical youthfulness, and an almost delirious danceability. Its famed arpeggio opening is now a rite of passage for all guitar players. Its second music video is one of the most iconic indie videos of all time. In 2010, Last.fm announced that it was their most played track. And better still, it refuses to leave the UK Chart. The bass glides about, and the drumming is sublime. The repeated synthesiser refrain rises and tumbles, offering a swaying and easy-feel. But just as with Jenny, the song hides a sadder theme. Inspired by a cheating girlfriend of Flowers’, the song is a recital for the downhearted.

Smile Like You Mean It and then Somebody Told Me reflect the dynamics of Jenny and Brightside, respectively. Smile is a dreary, world-worn march through nostalgia, and an acerbic and scathing commentary on how we romanticise memories; all of which is built on the stubborn rhythms the band loved writing. The song also offers the first real guitar solo of the record, and further exemplifies their penchant for synthesiser song-enders. Somebody Told Me on the other hand is a flash and dazzling spin through eighties disco, with lo-fi guitars, fuzzy synths and clambering bass and all. So keen were Flowers and co. to recreate that 80s aesthetic, that for the music video they based the visual displays on that of New Order’s Crystal: side-note, the video Crystal sees actors playing the song as a fictional band, with the kickdrum displaying the name The Killers. It all comes full circle.

Song five – All These Things That I’ve Done – is a dark horse on the record. Setting away from the synthesised glamour and sarcasm found earlier, the Killers match heartland heartache with some gentle ballad elements. Whilst the marching guitar and drums follow the pattern, and Stoermer’s bass bounce gently with the beat, it’s in the lyrics and singing we see a major difference. Flowers leaves the sneering smile at the door and offers sincerity and vulnerability. The central refrain, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”, sung by Flowers and a choir, is a welcome reminder that for all of their bragging the four can be human. The song nods its head at themes of war, weakness, homelessness, and isolation. It’s a great anti-war song, whether it was written to be or not. Keuning plays a simple riff to close, with Vannucci thundering out with him.

Quickly dropping sincerity, Andy, You’re A Star and On Top return to the wry and knowing venom of the album’s start, but to very different effect. The more miserable Andy is almost entirely rhythmic, with a weak organ buried into the background. Flowers sings with the same choir from the previous track, but here it’s less about emotion and far more about drama. Despite their minimalism here, Andy can be missed by blinking. On Top makes more effort to be noticed. Pumping synths and drums give On Top a heavier kick. Keuning blends a pinging guitar with Stoermer’s bubbling bass in the verse, before rushing into another ringing arpeggio for the chorus where his guitars dance with Flowers’ keyboard. Flowers himself spends the verses and choruses reassuring himself about marriage and love. It’s only towards the song’s end that he offers a jealous edge, with “And we don’t mean to satisfy tonight, so get your eyes off of my bride tonight” before culminating with “I look at you, and smile because I’m fine, now.”

 

Being honest, Change Your Mind is another weak one. It’s a great song, but feels far from the Killers’ comfort zone, and worse still it shows. Trying to redo the vulnerability of All These Things, they instead brew up a navel-gazing ballad that doesn’t really go very far. It’s a solid effort to try something else, but doesn’t suit an album that has been two-faced and daring until now. Following the disappointment of Change Your Mind is Believe Me Natalie, a much stronger and braver track. Jiving in its disco feels, Natalie is a better attempt to blend their toxic pop with the boisterous sincerity they’re capable of. It’s comparative strength may simply be down to the fact that Natalie is another character-driven song, but whatever the reason it’s far superior. The guitar picks a simple riff, the bass and drums bow to give great breakdowns, and Flowers’ lamenting vocals and un-intrusive melodies complete an easy-listening package.

Midnight Show returns to where Jenny left off. Or rather it’s a prelude, serving as the second episode of the Murder Trilogy. Again, the rhythms are intricate and waltz back and forth, diving between each other. Keuning offers a more sinister sound here, with reverbed guitars that creep closer and ring further with every bridge and breakdown. In the verses he rushes up and down, giving the song a pressing urgency. The bass digs deeper to flatten the bottom of the song out, and Vannucci’s drums race through fills and rolls. The synthesisers sway in the middle-distance, before falling to the front to close the song. Flowers’ vocals are more hysterical, with reverbed and distorted shrieks and complaints buried back into the mix. Ending with a funereal orchestral piece, where synthesised strings rise and fall past low-key organs, the song is one of the strongest on the album and the Killers’ whole discography.

Everything falls apart in Everything Will Be Alright, ironically. Barely staggering under the weight of its own importance, Everything Will Be Alright is anything but alright. The cloggy synthesisers can’t escape the grumbling guitar, and the bass and drums do nothing to lift any of the weight. Far from the imposing drama of Midnight Show, Jenny or Natalie, Everything can barely open an eye to see the disappointment it’s caused. Even the off-kilter attempts at romance with lines like “Then you took me by surprise, I’m dreaming about those dreamy eyes” can’t conceal the very poor thin bones on which the song’s built. Their second attempt at minimalism is worse than their first. It’s like the drunk friend who ruins the evening but is too drunk to notice. This is the album low-point.

Finishing everything is Glamourous Indie Rock and Roll. Now, despite the Killers having gone on to dismiss the song, it’s still amazing for the simple reason that it’s just a silly and flashy nod to irony. Mocking the hipster scene in Vegas, the Killers throw about non-sensical exaggerations (“In a clutch, I’m talking every word for all the boys…electric girls, with worn down toys”) and surreal situation comedy (“I take my twist with a shout, a coffee shop with a cause, man I’ll freak you out”) and swagger through the fog of misunderstanding and unexplained fun. Despite the sarcasm intended by the song, it’s annoyingly well-structured and the music is catchy: Keuning’s guitar punches hard, the bass pushes everything forward, and the drums flare where needed but otherwise just keep everything in-place. Flowers sings tenor and falsetto, screaming gibberish at bystanders. His piano taunts further, with its show-tune feel. It’s a weird one to finish the album with, but it’s a reminder of what Hot Fuss was always best at: being sincerely sarcastic, and almost deliberately uncool. In doing both of these things, the Killers crafted a masterpiece, which in-part is why “It’s indie rock and roll for me”.

Hot Fuss album cover: Wikipedia

Band photo: nme.com