Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is The Killers' 'Sam's Town'.
What happens when a song becomes bigger than the band?
Prior to 'Sam's Town' release, The Killers toed the line between 'one hit wonders' and The Next Big Thing™. Mr. Brightside became one of the defining songs of the decade, but thankfully did not define the band's eponymous record. 'Hot Fuss' is anchored by the weight of its other singles, and the first two parts of the now infamous (and alleged) 'Murder Trilogy'.
'Sam's Town' arrived two years later, with a marked transition in style and influence. The Las Vegas quartet waved goodbye to nu-wave, and attempted to rebuild themselves as the next great American rock band.
While much of frontman Brandon Flowers' solo material has focused on the bright lights and glamour of his hometown, 'Sam's Town', pulled the curtain down brusquely on the notorious city of sin.
'Sam's Town's opening title-track kicks off with Depeche Mode-esque synths, harking back to their debut. But Flowers is quick to showcase his disassociation with the gambling capital of the world.
"Nobody ever had a dream round here/But I don't really mind that it's starting to get to me ... "
It's this universal theme that establishes 'Sam's Town' as the kind of record it is. The 'big fish, small pond' mentality may be a songwriting cliché, but it's still one that deeply resonates a decade later.
Flowers opposed the use of vocal effects for this record, in an effort to make the LP sound more raw and unabashed. The sound throughout is unashamedly broader, with guitars that swell and break and crash relentlessly. When You Were Young borrows some traits from Mr. Brightside - an instantly recognisable intro, lamenting lost love over sharp synthesizers.
It was argued by critics at the time that Flowers' desperation to emulate the sound of Bruce Springsteen hindered this album sonically. The influence is certainly apparent, but When You Were Young is no Born To Run. Flowers' attempt at a jean-jacket, bandana-wearing revival was always going to be dismissed by a generation that had already lived through the greats of rock 'n' roll.
For those growing up in the noughties, however, their sound was refreshing, exciting and new. It was never a case of them looking to supersede The Boss, because they simply never could.
Flowers' vocals were unique in that he is a little more twee in his delivery compared to his contemporaries, as well as having a slightly more limited range. However, on this record, it only adds to the feeling of despair, painting him as 'not a boy, not yet a man'.
The chorus of Why Do I Keep Counting? is a good example of how effective his man-wailing can be. Flowers is never stoic in delivery, only playful - this is seen on the verses of For Reasons Unknown - on which he drawls about chairs - and This River Is Wild - "sometimes I'me nervous/when I talk I shake a little".
Similar to every person that related to Flowers' rhetoric directed at his 'two star town', it's a place he can never fully escape, nor a place he wants to ever really leave. In the same way you groan about your local nightclub, only to consistently end up there every St. Stephen's night skulling shots, Vegas is inherently apart of the band's identity. In fact, Flowers and Co. do a lot more to advertise the town than detract from it.
It's the view of the lights through grime-tinged windows; a regretful tone and a booze-fuelled headache. The carousel tempo of songs like title track Sam's Town and This River Is Wild send you spinning, before reeling you back. (A note that the rendition of Sam's Town the band performed at Abbey Road is beautifully stark by comparison).
With that said, an amount of criticism leveled at the band is fair. Their attempts at building an all-American arena sound suffocated later albums (see the disastrous 'Battle Born'). Whatever leather-clad bandana-sporting bug bit Flowers during the 'Sam's Town' album cycle was here to stay - even on his solo efforts, it's all very 'Tom Petty driving through the desert'. ('Sam's Town' actually refers to London - the city that gave the band their first record deal)
Regardless, what reigns supreme over the gargantuan guitars and shattering percussion on 'Sam's Town' is that disjointed sense of a lack of belonging and the burning desire to belong - somewhere, anywhere. The sense of questioning over whether the grass beyond Las Vegas is palpable and fervent - that burning desire that sends twenty somethings around the world with overflowing backpacks and empty wallets.
On the other side of the coin is that feeling of desolation when whatever it is you were looking for isn't what you were looking for after all - that stark precipice you face in which you ask - 'what now'?
No song better encapsulates this spirit than Read My Mind - the jewel in the 'Sam's Town's beauty pageant crown. The lyrics are selfish sulks about the writer's wish to move beyond a monotonous relationship without giving up on the ecstasy and safety within the bounds of the relationship.
'Sam's Town' is not a perfect LP. What it is is a look at life through a lens of hope - an album in which its sentiments wouldn't be a million miles away from those of today's millenials (see? The word can used positively too!) It's inescapable sense of burgeoning discovery - the thought that something better exists beyond the ether of a small town ethos - is what anchors this album, and will continue to anchor it for years to come.