OMGWTFLOL: The Killers – “Human” (2008)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 23, 2008
C’mon baby dry your eyes
The Killers have to be one of the more intriguing popular rock bands of the last decade. They came up in modern rock at a time when the genre’s doors were more open to freak hits and alternative anomalies since bands like Spacehog, Primitive Radio Gods and the Butthole Surfers were breaking into the mainstream back in 1996. Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had three of 2004’s biggest rock hits, and even The Darkness achieved Rock Gods status for about seven and a half minutes. Nu-metal was almost completely stagnant, pop-punk was dying with Blink-182, and the reign of Fall Out Boy was still at least six months away. Meanwhile, out of Vegas comes The Killers, with synths, big pop hooks, and thanks to a trio of videos directed by Brett Simon, Sophie Muller and Anton Corbijn, unmistakable glamour–three qualities almost entirely absent from the entire post-grunge era in rock up until that point.
While the rest of their underground-approved brethren’s mainstream commercial fortunes unsurprisingly faded after their breakout hits, The Killers have done a fairly impressive job of hanging on and lingering in the public’s consciousness. They had the three megahits off Hot Fuss (“Somebody Told Me,” “Mr. Brightside” and “All These Things That I’ve Done”) whose extended play on TV (not just the video channels, but in primetime dramas and even a couple commercials) kept the band in the limelight almost until the release of Sam’s Town. It looked like the sophomore slump might’ve hit The Killers after “When You Were Young” peaked a little earlier than expected and follow-up “Bones” performed predictably miserably, but third single “Read My Mind” had the same slow-burn commercial effect as “All These Things,” and the band was right back in the thick of it–if by now firmly out of the running for Biggest Band in the World status.
This is all mostly notable because while the band arguably has the least raw talent of any of the bands previously mentioned (not counting the Primitive Radio Gods), they also easily have the greatest ambitions. And while it’s tempting to say that The Killers’ ambitions further exceed their grasp than any band since Jesus Jones, I think a more accurate statement would be to say that The Killers ambitions are simply the least in line with their abilities of any band at the moment. They love Bruce Springsteen, but they’re an abysmal live act and don’t understand the first thing about street poetry. They idolize David Bowie, but sound awkward and confused singing come-ons. They wanna be as important as U2, but don’t care about anything in particular. Basically, they sound big without in any way actually being big–which would be totally fine if The Killers were OK with being the next Duran Duran or Def Leppard, but for whatever reason, the band seems to crave credibility beyond those highly respectable, and far more appropriate, comparisons.
So it’s a little surprising to me to see the band return with “Human,” a song which all but sheds the band’s American Dream aspirations from Sam’s Town in favor of a dance sound much closer to the Pet Shop Boys. House fans and blog afficianados are unlikely to be completely blindsided by this, as they will no doubt recall Jacques Lu Cont’s deservedly acclaimed remix of “Mr. Brightside,” or PSB’s very own Stars are Blazing remix of “Read My Mind,” both of which showed the enormous pop potential of The Killers when removed from any sort of Rock Star trappings (not that all the ingredients weren’t there to begin with, but still). It’s a risky move, especially because singer Brandon Flowers still apparently feels burdened by the pressure of greatness (“Everything is at stake on this album,” he’s said), but since the entire album is produced by JLC himself, it’s likely that all his chips are being placed on house being the style to take the band to the next level.
And, well…ouch. 95% of the beefs people have with The Killers are in some way based around the band’s lyrics, and indeed, the band has always sort of sank or swam with their cringeworthiness. Usually, they can hobble together a mixture of enough rock catch-alls (“Destiny is calling me,” “We’re burning down the highway skyline”), aurally satisfying tongue twisters (“Never thought I’d let a rumor ruin my moonlight,” “You know, you know, no you don’t, you don’t”) non-sensically vivid imagery (“The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out from the sun,” “Jealousy, turning saints into the sea”) and unbelievably catchy phrases that mean remarkably little (“He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus,” “I got soul but I’m not a soldier”) that you can sort of gloss over the songs’ general lack of comprehension or significance. But when they can’t, you get “Bones.” And “Human” makes “Bones” look like “Tangled Up in Blue.”
OK, I can’t write any more of this article without addressing this point right here and now–the main lyrical hook in “Human” is the following:
“Are we human? / Or are we dancer? / My sign is vital / My hands are cold.”
There are no typos in that second phrase. Oh, sure, the critics are already insising on it, and the album’s lyric sheet will no doubt back it up, but take it from me, the phrase is “Or are we dancer?” Listen to the song if you must, and if you can hear Brandon Flowers put an “s” sound at the end of “dancer,” congratulations, you’re even more self-delusional than I am. He even rhymes the phrase with the word “answer” in the song’s next line, when saying “answers” would’ve made just as much sense. No matter what anyone says in the song’s ensuing fallout, it’s a fucking fact: The Killers are banking their ever-huge commercial aspirations on the question “Are we human / Or are we dancer?”
Not that “or are we dancers” would’ve made the song that much more bearable. Even with the correct grammar, it’d still be one of the bigger lyrical atrocities in a song where such gaffes pop up like marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms. Couplets like “Pay my respectes to grace and virtue / Send my condolences to good.” Phrases like “The platform of surrender.” Apostrophes like “So long to devotion / You taught me everything I know.” Observations like “And sometimes I get nervous / when I see an open door.” But even if the verses were on the level of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” any hope the song had of flight would be firmly grounded by the ton of bricks that is the chorus, a clunker to end all lyrical clunkers.
In the Hot Fuss days, at least there’d be majesty enough in the music that you could usually look past the blunder of the lyrics–the insignificance of whatever “Open up my eager eyes / ‘Coz I’m Mr. Brightside” means is far outweighed by the significance of the way the song’s swooping bass line connects with the shimmering synths and cascading guitar line to conjure up memories of prime New Order (who, by the way, weren’t always 100% malady-free in their lyrics either). In “Human,” though, I’m not sure if it’s that the music isn’t catchy enough, or that it’s simply impossible to think about anything else once you get an enigma like “Are we human? / Or are we dancer?” stuck in your head, but three or four listens in and I still don’t have a clue how this song even goes. Maybe those ill-conceived rock star trappings were there for a reason after all.
Frankly, I suppose we should be thankful that The Killers stayed on the bearable side of cringeworthiness for as long as they did–five potential classics-to-be is almost enough to build a solid hits compilation around, which is all anyone should’ve asked out of the band in the first place. Still, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of regret that the band couldn’t ride it out a little while longer–Duran Duran and Def Leppard might not ever be mentioned on the same level as legitimate rock legends Bruce Springsteen or U2, but they’re first-tier, hall of fame pop bands without a doubt, and it would’ve been nice to have been able to include The Killers in their company. But unless the next single is “Hungry Like the Wolf” times “Photograph,” and with a better video than both…I think we’re pretty much done here.