Where the White Boys Dance: The Killers, Sawdust

By Daniel Garrett

The Killers, Sawdust
Island Records, 2007

Poor man that I am, I claim it all, as I must: I claim Euripides, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Stoppard, and August Wilson. I claim Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, and I claim John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, and Tina Turner, Carly Simon, David Bowie, Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith and Prince, and Bloc Party, Bright Eyes, The Dears, Modest Mouse, and the Killers. Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of the Killers, has a good voice and can sing—and his bandmates Dave Keuning, Mark Stoermer, and Ronnie Vannucci can play their instruments, and their recordings sound good, and such simple facts—competence, entertainment value—distinguish them from many of their independent rock music peers, for whom mediocrity is often a sign of authenticity, of being one with the people. The collection, Sawdust, is mostly a lot of fun, and is better than I expected it to be (I liked Sam’s Town, but its earnest quality limited the sense of sensuality).

A burst of guitar noise and a heavy drum beat, followed by Brandon Flowers’s Reedish singing—and then Lou Reed himself, form the beginning of “Tranquilize,” a song with lyrics such as “money talks when people need shoes and socks,” lyrics that also articulate fear of home invasion and feelings of stasis. Reed’s singing is laconic, and draws power from familiarity, from the listener’s sense of his character, but Flowers seems a stronger singer to me; and, with a children’s chorus and everything else, the song itself could be a piece of musical theater (experience and articulation are dramatized, are accentuated with the aura of importance they have for us in the world)—and I imagine that last fact is part of what inspires resentment among not very bright listeners, which includes some of those who pass—incredibly—for music critics these days. Above the fast guitar-and-drum rhythm, Flowers’s baritone voice is again clear and firm as he makes a direct address in “Shadowplay,” able to sound conversational or disturbed without losing musical tone. “I don’t feel like loving you no more, I don’t feel like touching her no more,” sings Flowers in a song of travel and alienation, his voice the confident voice of a coherent self, in a song that begins with solitary thick guitar notes that then become a rampaging rhythm, “All the Pretty Faces.” (Flowers is the center; and the center does hold.) However, “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf,” like several other songs in the collection (“Show You How,” “Who Let You Go?,” and “The Ballad of Michael Valentine), doesn’t seem particularly special to me, though Flowers makes it—a song focused on the mundane turmoil and longing in a relationship—listenable. Brandon Flowers’s high voice in “Sweet Talk” approaches whining but even that does not repel, in a song with lines such as “take my eyes from the fire—they can’t handle the flame” and the wonderfully orchestrated (buzzing, layered) noise of the music. (The compact disk of Sawdust I listened to did not have its liner notes, so I am not able, now, to cite songwriting or musician credits.) More often than not, the design and energy of the music engage and please the listener. Does a woman have a criminal mind, or is she an angel? That is the question in the expanse of male-female relationship shown in “Under the Gun,” in which one friend asks another to “kill me now,” to end the torment, amid lyrics that mention London, James Dean, and “crashing cars in his brain.”

“Take me to the place where the white boys dance,” requests the narrator in one of the songs I like best in the assemblage, “Where the White Boys Dance,” a song that follows a newly ended relationship and a readiness for something else, a song with an uncluttered production and a chanting tribal beat, a cosmopolitan tribalism, and Flowers’s voice (assuming a bit of the vocal style of Jeff Buckley? Prince?)—and Flowers is whispery in the verses but does the chorus in his regular range. I think I hear echoes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s dance song “Relax” in the Killers’ “Move Away,” which follows the slow vocal pacing of “Show You How.” The Killers’ taste for pleasure and rhythm, of course, is anathema to those who themselves are too awkward and insecure to dance—or even admit that something other than angst or protest is natural (people committed to a false authenticity, a simplicity of the mind that denies the beauty and bounty of the world). Flowers may be too knowing to find allegiance among the dour inhabitants of Indieworld, even—or especially—when he sings, “Glamorous indie rock and roll is what I want. It’s in my soul, it’s what I need.” To be able to admit ambition and admit need and admit love—takes courage, whether it be ordinary courage or special courage. It takes courage to admit that one is not always sincere as well. “Making up, breaking up, what do you care?” asks Flowers, before singing, “Let’s cause a scene, like lovers do on the silver screen. Let’s fake it, we’ll cause a scene,” to music of many differing textures, suggesting a man and band able to—as Roland Barthes suggested—outplay the moves of power: this kind of virtuosity is theatrical and transcendent.

The narrator’s referring to his own beautiful eyes in “Who Let You Go?” nearly redeems a song that otherwise doesn’t interest me very much. A song of journey, “The Ballad of Michael Valentine,” is impressionistic and mentions Memphis, New Orleans, North Dakota. (Those small details—the beautiful eyes; the city names—offer something to the imagination, something to savor.) The country music story-song “Ruby, Don’t You Take Your Love to Town,” which cites a crazy Asian war, a soldier’s duty, his paralyzed legs, and impending death, is about a man asking a woman to stay home rather than go out carousing—he says he’s heard her slam the door a hundred times before and would like to kill her. The guitar in “Daddy’s Eyes” seems to comment on the narrative of desire, betrayal, and exhaustion.

It does not take much guessing to identify the band’s influences (the band is reaching up over the heads of many of its contemporaries to touch the rock tradition: a form of respecting the parents that kids do not frequently like, when they recognize it). “Sam’s Town (Abbey Road version)” is Springsteenish (alienation, sex, salvation), and possibly conjures too many indicators of meaning, too many signs of experience in its lyrics. And “Romeo and Juliet,” in its laid back beat and singing, evokes Lou Reed, especially Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” in its depiction of attraction, the glamour of the street, and failure (“I can’t do the talk, like the talk on the TV” and “all I do is miss you”); and the song’s sound is more interesting than its story. Jacques Lucont’s Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside” offers a somewhat painful voyeuristic view accompanied by a light, pleasant dance beat; and there’s a brief coda, of piano and a harmony of voices, singing about a red-bearded man, his heart in the ocean, a captain, that does suggest—with amusement and wit—musical theater. (Rock is dead. Long live rock.)

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.