A lot of bands have released pretty good debut records, only to follow them up with less-than-spectacular careers. The rule used to be (before the FCC, the recording industry and the radio industry conspired to destroy all music) that you learned what you needed to know about a band with its third album. Given how things worked, you often saw a pattern that looked something like this:
- Debut: Band (or solo artist) has been on the road for awhile, writing and building an audience and developing as a creative and performing force. The first record contained the best songs they’d managed to write over a period of a couple (or three or four or five) years. Album is a big success.
- Follow-up: The success of the first record has kept the band hopping for a few months and there’s intense demand to get something new on the shelves. As a result, album #2 may wind up featuring the second-best set of songs, since the band hasn’t had a chance to develop top-notch new material. So the follow-up was sometimes a bit of a let-down.
- Third Album: By now the label has had a chance to invest in artist development (a lost concept, I know) for two or three years and a more mature set of material has been written. So you get the band’s best shot – if it fizzles, well, they had one great record.
If they’re really all they were cracked up to be, though, you might get something like this:
- War, U2
- Sheer Heart Attack, Queen
- Making Movies, Dire Straits
- Zenyatta Mondatta, The Police
- Damn the Torpedoes, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
- Beatles ’65, The Beatles
- Reckoning or Fables of the Reconstruction (depending on whether you count the EP), REM
You can probably think of a few of your own, and to be sure the dynamic I’m describing isn’t universal (for The Who, it was the fourth record, The Who Sell Out, for instance, and other bands simply ripped the lid off from the git-go – think Graham Parker and Van Morrison here).
We haven’t seen a lot of the old pattern in recent years because the labels have been more interested in mongering disposable titty-floggers than they have developing actual artists. Today, though…today something special may be happening: The Killers release their third studio effort (no, the B-sides disc doesn’t count), Day and Age.
The band’s debut, Hot Fuss, was nothing short of fantastic, and they immediately set themselves at the head of the whole nu wave movement alongside Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. Then they veered away from tradition a bit, as Sam’s Town was actually better than the first release. This owes in part to the speed with which Brandon Flowers and Co. realized they didn’t want to be trapped in a retro-nostalgia time warp: instead of taking another neo-’80s dip, they reached even further back, into the ’70s, where they paid a worthy homage to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (another of those iconic third albums, by the way, and arguably one of the two or three greatest ever).
(NOTE: I know some Killers fans hate the Springsteen comparisons, by the way, but don’t blame me. Check out what happens at the 1:48 mark of “When We Were Young,” then compare it to what happens 2:53 into “Born to Run.” Besides, it’s not like this isn’t about as huge a compliment as a band can be paid.)
This, I think, is what sets The Killers apart from so many other bands of their generation: ambition. Great big aggressive epic ambition. So many – soooooo many – of today’s indie bands are possessed by a near-pathological rage for smallness. They aspire, if one can use that word, to make the quietest, least noticeable, most trivial, insignificant semi-music possible. Meanwhile, Flowers and bandmates David Keuning, Mark Stoermer and Ronnie Vannucci have seemingly grokked the majesty of true artistic aspiration – recalling that marvelous thing Bono said a few years back: “It’s still an extraordinary thing to behold, the sound of a rock band in full flight.”
I’ve heard a track or two off the new disc and saw their performance on SNL a few weeks back, and I’m expecting great things from Day and Age. Maybe I’m setting myself up for a disappointment, but I doubt it. The Killers want greatness, and their work to date suggests that they have an idea about what goes into attaining it.
They have been, to this point, the finest band of their generation. Will they transcend their generation and take their place alongside all those other bands who began revealing the full measure of their greatness with the release of their third albums?
We’ll know more today.
Thanks to Jim Booth, who contributed to this story.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture