10 Years, 100 Songs: #53. “I Never….”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 20, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
I hate to start off an entry on a list generally devoted to non-stop reverence and love, but I’m afraid I have to lead with this: Shame on The Killers for me ranking this song so low. If things had gone the way they should have, or the way I thought they should have back in 2004-05, “Mr. Brightside” would have been a lock for the top ten. It’s hard to explain, even to myself now, just how exciting this song was as it was becoming popular–rocketing up the pop charts and winning VMAs, hot off the unexpected modern rock breakthroughs of the similarly unexpected Modest Mouse and Franz Ferdinand, as well as their own “Somebody Told Me”. But unlike with those bands, where you knew pretty much right away that the hits were flukes of time and circumstance, highly unlikely to ever be repeated, The Killers seemed to have loftier goals in mind. They seemed like they just might have been destined for true greatness–to maybe, just maybe, breathe down the necks of Coldplay and Linkin Park as the Biggest Band in the world.
Whoops. Being the biggest band in the world may or may not have been something the Killers wanted, but as became clear in time, it was something they were simply not capable of achieving. Lead singer Brandon Flowers certainly seemed to long for eternity, but his reach was perpetually outside of his grasp, and while his songs showed that he was a big admirer of rock legends like Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Bono, all the similarities ended up doing was illustrating the gigantic chasm in talent that lied in between Flowers and his idols. He was good-looking but not charismatic, had a good voice but lacked passion, and could turn a phrase but not write a thoroughly coherent song. With the rest of the band more than content to lurk in the shadows and remain notable only for whether or not they wore moustaches (one did, I think), it was all put on Brandon’s shoulders, and he just might not have been smart, savvy, or just plain good enough to get the band to that level on his own. By the time they got to “Human“…well, the dream was over. And it’s almost impossible to prevent the eventual disappointment from tainting the memory of the band’s glory days.
But man, “Mr. Brightside.” From the very first time you heard that opening cascading riff, giving way to the galloping drums and Flowers’ great opening lines, “Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine…” you felt like you were witnessing something really special. It sounded grander, more majestic than just about any other song had that decade, and it only grew as the song progressed. Brandon fretted about (maybe) watching a girl with another man, almost spitting in his seething and self-loathing (“Now I’m going to bed / And my stomach is sick / And it’s all in my head / But she’s touching his chest, now…”) as the song provided emotional support for him underneath. The subtle key to the song was its zooming, cranked-up bass line, which gave the song the steady foundation it needed for it to really take off in flight.
The much more obvious key to the song, however, were the synths. Synths. In rock music. Not exactly a revolutionary concept, I’m aware–I have in fact heard of a decade called the 1980s–but it can’t much be overstated how refreshing a sound they were in 2004, after a half-decade of progressively dirgier and dirgier nu-metal and pop-punk. To have something as clean-sounding, as sweeping, as blatantly emotional as a big synthesizer hook in a song like this–it didn’t feel like a throwback, it felt like an all-around game-changer (second time I’ve used that phrase in two articles–man, I need to diversify my daytime TV watching). Besides, with the White Guys With Pianos proving that tickling the ivory was still in vogue in an accoustic format, it seemed to make sense that a revival in the electronic manner would be imminent as well. And they sounded great here.
I was beyond sold on the song before it got to the chorus, but just in case there were still doubters left, The Killers knocked it out of the park. All the instruments kick into higher gear, drums crashing, bass and guitar soaring, as Flowers kicks it up a notch as well into the chorus’s climax: “But it’s just the price I pay / Destiny is calling me / Open up my eaaaager eyyyyyes / ‘Coz I’m Mr. Brightside.” What did it mean? I had no idea, and I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. It sounded like a classic chorus, and it got bigger and better each time you heard it. I wondered if it was what Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” sounded like to new wavers back in 1983, another full-band synth-heavy effort whose lyrics were a little strange and whose chorus and title were a little enigmatic, but which no doubt sounded new and fresh and relentlessly exciting, officially announcing the arrival of one of the era’s most definitive bands.
Of course, there was another important way in which The Killers echoed Duran Duran–the video. “Mr. Brightside” probably would’ve been huge either way, but it was Sophie Muller’s video that made them really believable as rock stars. You can see it in contrast with the “Somebody Told Me” video, where the Killers (Flowers mostly) looked confident but still a little jerky and awkward. Not so in “Mr. Brightside,” where under Muller’s sure guiding hand, Flowers looked like rock royalty, even going ten rounds dramatically with co-star Eric Roberts (who, between his work here and his appearance in Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” became the Naughty Oughties’ most unlikely video vixen). And the video itself was so much fun, Roberts and Flowers engaging in a Moulin Rouge-esque battle for the affections of a courtesan–with all the quick cuts, zooming camera shots and implied drama (including an historically tense game of checkers), the clip felt just as epic and transporting as a Duran Duran video. A rarity for the 00s, to say the least.
So what happened? Well, the band ended things well with the remaining Hot Fuss singles, with a vastly different but possibly even more enjoyable video for unlikely anthem “All These Things That I’ve Done,” whose bevy of Meyer-esque vixens (not Roberts this time) just furthered the Duran comparisons. But by the time of follow-up album Sam’s Town, new wave was not the Killers’ aspiration–now they wanted to sound like Springsteen. Fair enough, as lead single “When You Were Young” sounded panoramic and romantic enough at first to be Boss-worthy, but the song didn’t hold up in the same way–Flowers felt like he was forcing it at parts, and lyrics that at first just seemed kind of clumsy became out-and-out clunkers. Follow up single “Bones” was endearingly bizarre but commercially suicidal, showing that The Killers weren’t really as in control of their destiny as they first appeared. And then “Human” just confirmed it–either The Killers had lost the plot, or more likely, they never properly memorized the script in the first place. (And that was the best single off Day & Age–sad, sad, sad.)
But as disappointing as The Killers’ failure to grab the brass ring was, we’ll still always have fake-Paris–“Mr. Brightside” doesn’t sound as awesome as it did five years ago, but its charms are still undeniable. And if you can resist that little patronizing “oooh, tough one” face that Roberts make after crushing Flowers in checkers (backgammon?) then mister, you’re a better man than I.
(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far (Now With Links!):
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly”
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem”
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday”
55. Darude – “Sandstorm“
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside”