Millennial Masterpieces #13: The Killers – [Hot Fuss]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Thirteenth in the series is the stunningly influential debut from Las Vegas alternative veterans The Killers, Hot Fuss.

Released: June 7, 2004

2004 was a good year for indie rock. The days of the garage rock revival were waning, and teen soap The OC became the catalyst for the great band migration from the underground to the mainstream. The charts were ruled by a trifecta of vastly different artists- Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, and The Killers. It would still be about a year before the floodgates really burst open, but the seeds of change had been planted.

Modest Mouse brought forth jangly guitars.

Franz Ferdinand brought forth mod revival.

and The Killers brought forth….the 80s.

Yes, it’s true. The 1980s rebirth that lasted longer than the 80s themselves (it’s only now beginning to fade) can be directly attributed to the Nevada quartet and their keyboard-stuffed debut. Lead single “Somebody Told Me” and its synth-strings literally changed the face of modern music. Here’s just a small sample of artists who wouldn’t have had mainstream success if it weren’t for Hot Fuss:

Walk the Moon, Chain Gang of 1974, Bloc Party, The Naked and Famous, Foster the People, Rock Kills Kid, Angels & Airwaves, AWOLNATION, Future Islands, Phoenix, Twin Shadow, The Bravery, Neon Trees, New Politics, The Districts.

This doesn’t include the huge amount of artists who changed their sound to fit in with the new zeitgeist (Good Charlotte, Carly Rae Jepsen, Linkin Park, Keane), nor does it include artists further down the family tree who were welcomed into the fold due to the proliferation of electronic sounds (M83, Crystal Castles, Lady Gaga). All because frontman Brandon Flowers really liked some vintage blips and bloops.

There are a few bits of irony to be found in this situation. The first is the fact that though Hot Fuss spearheaded the new wave of new wave, the album itself is…heavily influenced by 1970s New York post punk. Another genre which found new life in the 2000s, but spent far less time in the spotlight despite being the backbone of the record. Though the whole affair is awash in various synth pads and patches, the core is undoubtedly based on a guitar rock foundation. This isn’t a synth-pop record in the least.

Two years later The Killers would move forward into the 80s– 80s rock, that is. That’s the second bit of irony here. After launching the career of a thousand Duran Duran wannabes, the band promptly discarded that image and headed out into the heartland to pray at the altar of Springsteen for the rest of their existence. There’s been a few sonic flip-flops along the way but the presence of the Boss has sat behind the wheel ever since 2006’s Sam’s Town. Don’t believe me? It’s 2017 and the band’s most recent single is called “Run For Cover”. Yup.

(Note: Sam’s Town also influenced another hundred bands, but that’s another blog.)

So why did everyone decide that the biggest takeaway from Hot Fuss was “we need a keyboardist”? Call it the Hollywood Executive effect. When a movie does well, it’s not because the movie itself was good, it must be because of some specific aspect of the movie that needs to be repeated again and again and again! The Grudge sold a lot of tickets? Make all the Korean horror films English! Deadpool did ok? Make all the superheroes rated R! And don’t forget to REBOOT EVERYTHING THAT SOLD WELL. Get all the money!

And that’s how we got the likes of Tom DeLonge singing about galaxies, the Madden brothers out on the dancefloor, and Pete Wentz playing his bass over a dubstep beat. Because obviously Hot Fuss is a classic solely due to Flowers’ penchant for Korg.

Or maybe it’s because it’s stuffed with unimpeachable classics. “Somebody Told Me”, “Mr. Brightside”, and “All These Things That I’ve Done” are virtually lodged in the public consciousness, regularly featured on lists of greatest songs ever. Maybe because Brandon Flowers threw himself into every line with unabashed earnestness. The melodrama of “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” was miles away from the ineffable cool of The Hives, The Strokes, and all the other “The’s” of 2001-2004. Flowers has always dealt strictly in high-stakes emotion; “Mr. Brightside” finds the frontman singing infinity-spanning platitudes about not getting with a girl. “All These Things That I’ve Done” blew everything up with a full gospel choir seven years before maximalist pop began rearing its head- even before the much-vaunted Arcade Fire made “anthem indie” a thing.

Another underappreciated facet of the album is its transitory nature. It might have slathered everything with synths, but strip those away and you’ve got a really emo Strokes album. “Change Your Mind” is essentially a Strokes song in every way anyway. This record was not a shock to the collective system; it bridged together garage rock and modern indie in a seamless way that sneakily hid how monumental it really was. It’s sort of like when The Cars merged classic rock and new wave together. Ric Ocasek‘s influence can be felt on here too, and looms large on the synth melodies of “Smile Like You Mean It” and “Everything Will Be Alright”.

The latter is the album closer, and perhaps the most underrated song on the album. A sleepy serenade, it repeats the title lyric in such a forlorn way that it sounds like Flowers is trying to reassure himself rather than the object of his affections. It’s this sort of sentiment that was hugely lacking in the modern rock of the day (and today!). The ballad’s glimmering synths are nice and all, but the heart is what sold it and the record it concluded.

Top Three Tracks: “Mr. Brightside”, “Everything Will Be Alright”, “Smile Like You Mean It”