Happy 15th Anniversary to The Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss, originally released June 15, 2004.
Let’s assume you’ve made it to “Andy You’re A Star,” the sixth track on The Killers’ 2004 debut Hot Fuss, and your voice has not yet given out from trying to keep up with Brandon Flowers through the bridge in “All These Things That I’ve Done” or the verses in “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine.” The ringing in your ears (because of course, you’ve been listening to the record at full volume) would start to set in as you muster up the courage to not only reach for the high notes, but to let your newly adapted, swaggering post-punk persona drop away for a moment of vulnerability.
The emptiness of “Andy” helps define Hot Fuss—a rager of an album featuring vocal and instrumental approaches so full-steam ahead that there is no time for anything other than steering-wheel drumming or stadiums full of people screaming “I Never.” When we slow down, it must mean that something is seriously amiss; it turns out that the most gut-wrenching thing we can think of is for Andy to be a star (or, at least, loved), and not know it. Andy’s unrecognized magnificence mirrors that of our band, who finds the whole lack of glamor very sad indeed.
With Hot Fuss’ 15-year anniversary upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not this album is actually about anything. I usually think about it as a collection of twelve impeccable songs (okay, eleven—I always associate “Midnight Show” with a strange fatigue where I’ve been willing to put up with this nonsense for ten tracks, but eleven is simply a bridge too far) that put The Killers on the map. And this is true.
But for The Killers, maybe more for other bands, being On The Map is a narrative in and of itself. Hot Fuss built the band’s reputation of (in Liz Itkowsky’s words) “arena rock posturing”; every song on the album sounds like it was written for the express purpose of closing out a three-night festival, Flowers adorned in a glittering blazer, lasers doing their whole lasery thing, the crowd jumping up and down in unison. Is it a concept album if the concept is simply the word “Massive?” Is there anything earnest, or artistic, about “we’re just a bump to the grind / oh oh / I don’t mind / we’re on top”)?
The question here isn’t whether or not dance tracks can be art. They can. What’s more interesting is how Hot Fuss oozes with an earnest opulence from a band that nobody had ever heard of.
When Hot Fuss was recorded in late 2003, The Killers were somehow sitting in the shadow of both New Wave and more contemporary groups like The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, and The Rapture. They were a small Las Vegas group, sneaking onto the local college campus to rehearse, playing in garages and clubs, trying to establish themselves amidst the glitz that overshadowed the local music scene. It’s hard to stand out in a sequined blazer when everyone in town owns one.
There is an up-and-comingness that undergirds this album, something that’s difficult for us to imagine now. For us, The Killers are only enormous. They certainly played the part, but perhaps what we should be looking for underneath the mania is that sense of smallness. This band was pouring itself into this record, hoping that it would play the part of self-assured rock stars that they, at least at the moment, weren’t yet. To really experience Hot Fuss, you have to imagine it being written by both the biggest and the smallest band in the world.
You can hear the striving in every move. We open up with the faint whirring of a helicopter, followed by the manic strumming of a distorted guitar that feels out of place, unstable somehow, until it’s kicked into place by the rhythm section. Mark Stoermer channels John Entwistle on “The Real Me” with some preposterously loud Lead Bass, while Flowers screams his semi-confessional, semi-Song-Of-The-Summer lyrics. The fun is desperate.
And so on and so on: The swishy, open hi-hat on “Mr. Brightside.” The partly delightful and partly cringeworthy bridge in “All These Things That I’ve Done.” The repeated lyrics (who has time to rhyme when you’re singing this fast?) on “Somebody Told Me.” The simply absurd and nonsensical line “This is a cliché under your Monet, baby!” in “Believe Me, Natalie.” The synth-vocal mirrors in “On Top.” For The Killers, the ostentatiousness of their album seems to prove itself—they can get away with “On Top” because they already got away with “Somebody Told Me.”
These are the choices your band makes when it has all the confidence in the world—whether or not The Killers actually had it is one of the biggest mysteries of Hot Fuss, and knowing the answer doesn’t help us understand this weird album. It’s about asking the question in the first place, letting the doubt creep in, that makes this full-throttle record so wonderful.