They can be taught! What separates the Killers from contemporaries such as the Bravery and Panic! at the Disco-- and what will ensure an audience when those bands have fully fossilized-- is that the Vegas quartet can learn and adapt. While they evolved out of the Strokes' 1970s guitar strut and a flyover approximation of that band's New York-centric sense of style, the Killers have since managed to move up the evolutionary ladder, developing actual tools and displaying the capacity for reason. Sam's Town, their second rung, predicted opposable thumbs and verbal language in the band's future. The band used Springsteen to poke out even more drama from new wave, cross-breeding two very different species-- the Boss' concentrated working-class rock with effete British new wave. Surprise: It sometimes worked.
On their way forward, the Killers offer a glance backward with Sawdust, a hodgepodge of everything they've tried in the past as well as a few things they'll no doubt try again in the future. With its vague title and ludicrous artwork, this catch-all gathers outtakes, B-sides, covers, Jacques Lu Cont's Thin White Duke remix of "Mr. Brightside", and a dorky hidden track that reveals their debt to Stone Temple Pilots. What the Killers haven't learned is how to dial it back: These songs, just like the albums they were recorded for, are busy with sounds and effects, as if they are aiming to deploy every studio knob or realize all of their harebrained ideas at once. Opener "Tranquilize" sounds weighted with stuff-- the typical drum-bass-guitar, of course, but also more guitars, synths both ominous and light, a children's choir, Lou Reed-- all in service to trite lyrics and bombastic melodies. Likewise, their cover of Joy Division's "Shadowplay" shoots for epic, losing the minimalist menace of the original in a maelstrom of garishly climactic instrumentation.
The Killers' clunky more-is-more aesthetic derives from stadium bands like Depeche Mode, whose music had to sound good in an arena as well as on headphones. But Depeche Mode had the good sense to streamline their songs, making you listen deeply, not broadly. In this sense, Sawdust is musically dense but superficial, with seemingly no grand plan for all those sounds beyond having all those sounds. Songs like "All the Pretty Faces" and the too-wry "Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll" ramble on long after the band has spent that particular nickel, and even shorter tracks like "Under the Gun" and "Show You How" never feel concise like three-minute pop songs-- the not-so-bright side of ambition. Even the "Mr. Brightside" remix, which breaks the song down just to build it up again, reconstructs with the wrong elements and loses most of what made the original so enjoyable in the first place.
On the other hand, boneheaded bombast is what the Killers do best, and they know enough not to grasp for subtlety. Because it's not a proper album and therefore not a big statement, Sawdust may actually be the Killers' loosest collection to date. Whenever listening becomes a trudge, there's a relatively off-the-cuff track like their cover of the Mel Tillis-penned, Kenny Rogers-popularized "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town". Buried in the back half of the album, it sounds like they recorded in a practice room, with only a few instruments at their disposal. Of course nothing the Killers do is that spontaneous, but nevertheless, they do right by the song, powered by Ronnie Vannucci's rolling beat and Brandon Flowers' slight reimagining of the chorus. Similarly, they downplay Dire Straits' "Romeo & Juliet", delivering it like a song instead of a community-theater monologue. Following in Mark Knopfler's footsteps, Flowers refuses to emote, which has wrecked other covers, and the band's understatement is appreciated.
Overall, there's a strong sense of exploration on Sawdust; if the Killers don't seem to have much intuitive understanding of balance and songcraft, the overproduction at least suggests a strong musical curiosity underlying their obvious career ambitions. To date, the Killers' greatest accomplishment has been keeping their possibilities wide open, which few acts have managed to do without coming across as timid or aimless. If they can keep that up and actually go to unexpected places, regardless of the results, they'll be walking upright while other groups are still dragging their knuckles.
-Stephen M. Deusner, November 27, 2007