Album Assignments: Hot Fuss

Album sequencing is a funny thing nowadays. The MP3 era has taken us back to a world where the track is king. It’s so easy to shuffle an album, or an artist, or an entire library, be it on an iPod, Spotify, YouTube, whatever, that the notion of a meticulously structured and ordered album feels like it belongs to a bygone era. Hot Fuss came out just as the iPod’s popularity was exploding — it’s part of that era’s last gasp.

Here’s why the sequencing on Hot Fuss is important: The Killers very conveniently ordered the entire album in descending order of awesomeness, traversing a spectrum from mind-blowing to mildly annoying. “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” is the explosive, electrifying opener, with the most badass bass line on the album. Part of what makes the song so incredible is that it’s our first exposure to the Killers’ sound, a thrilling combination of crunchy rhythm section, towering riffs, Eighties synth flourishes, and the high-drama glam vocals of Brandon Flowers. Every line Flowers sings on this song feels like it’s being ripped out of him, careening from plea to confession to sinister threat. Robby and I have talked a lot about debut albums, but not as much about debut songs — the first track on a debut album. I would make the case for “Jenny” as one of the most intense first songs ever.

If “Mr. Brightside” isn’t quite on that level, it’s only a tiny notch below. Unlike many Killers songs, this one has a cohesive narrative, all hung around the images swirling through the head of the jealous narrator. Again, Flowers’ vocals keep the whole thing at a heightened pitch of emotion while also maintaining just a bit of ironic distance, as the urgent drums drive the track onward relentlessly. This was the Killers’ only Top Ten hit, and it absolutely deserved all the popularity it had and more.

Album cover for Hot Fuss

With “Smile Like You Mean It”, the first tiny flaws begin to show. I mean, everything great is still there — a spooky synth riff, Edge-like guitar underpinnings, a hi-hatty drum part that bookends the chorus with big booms — but… “smile like you mean it”? It makes sense on its own, I guess, as a chiding reminder about sincerity, but the verses seem weirdly disconnected from the concept, or really any concept. The bridge brings back a little of Mr. Brightside’s jealousy, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

“Somebody Told Me” goes even further into lyrical incoherence. Possibly there’s something deep going on here that I can’t find, but it sure sounds like the story of a guy whose ex(?) is going out with somebody who looks like his own ex, which bears repeating over and over again because…? Sure, musically, still incredible — Flowers has a fantastic gift for making just about anything sound like it’s the most important thing in the world, and the mix pulls off a perfect synergy between powerhouse drums, jagged guitar, and brisk synth fills, but the words just don’t hold up here.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the incomparable nonsense that comprises the thesis statement of “All These Things That I’ve Done.” The Killers would summit the peak of Bizarro Lyric Mountain a few years later with “Are we human or are we dancer?”, but repeating “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” makes for a hell of a warmup. It’s not just the repetition — the song builds and builds, literally adding a gospel choir at the end, as if to impart great meaning to the line, but really… “I got soul but I’m not a soldier”? Are soldiers known for having a lot of soul? Does having soul make somebody assume you’re a soldier? What the hell do these words have to do with each other besides phonic similarity?

Let’s think of those first five songs as Side One of Hot Fuss. From there, the record settles into a groove of good-not-great, a solid B full of songs that have their kicks along with their head-scratchers. “Change Your Mind” is the last of these, and then we drop another notch with “Believe Me Natalie” into a couple songs whose music doesn’t quite compensate for their vacuity.

Finally, “Everything Will Be Alright” delivers almost six minutes of droning, Cure-wannabe dirge, whose attempts at reassurance fall flat in the face of its seasick swirling synths and trite mantras. Flowers’ voice, which previously could at least partially redeem even the silliest words, here gets distorted out of its ability to deliver emotion. The song isn’t terrible, but boy, it wears on me.

But luckily, I listened to this album on repeat, so as this subpar song dragged on and my impatience rose, suddenly Mark Stoermer’s kick-ass bass line on “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” would reappear, and The Killers were awesome again.

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