Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
In January of 2004, three years after the iPod debuted, Apple announced that sales had surpassed 2 million units. A mere four months later, someone dropped $299 for number 3 million. The thing most everyone liked about the iPod was the shuffle-play feature, and for dutiful followers of new indie music, this was a handy way to absorb all the day’s garage, post- and disco-punk, emo, and sparkling U.K. stadium rock without having to futz with a bunch of Strokes, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Death Cab For Cutie, and Coldplay CDs.
In the summer of 2004, another option would’ve been to simply play The Killers’ Hot Fuss. Released in June, the Las Vegas foursome’s debut was a 45-minute primer on then-popular alt-rock styles—all by a single band and all at the same time.
The Killers endeavored to be both a guitar-driven indie band and a suave neo-new-wave synthpop act. Up front was pretty-boy singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers, a devout Mormon in mascara whose starchy flamboyance made him seem sincere and ironic at the same time.
Had The Killers come along a couple of decades earlier, when Joy Division fans weren’t necessarily down with Duran Duran, they might’ve had to make some choices. But from the safe distance of the mid-’00s—when iPods filled with ill-begotten songs made everyone more omnivorous in their listening—The Killers could make glassy, gloomy, and above all, grabby rock for the ear-budded masses. And they didn’t even need an entire album of good songs.
Despite its multi-platinum sales and new-classic status, Hot Fuss only holds up for half of its run time. That’s the first half, to be precise, where the band wastes no time unloading its best stuff. Following the stiff arctic earworm of opener “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine,” the group serves up four singles in a row. Three of those—the overblown synth-rock infidelity fantasy “Mr. Brightside,” the disco lark “Somebody Told Me,” and the Red Rocks-ready flag-waver “All These Things That I’ve Done”—are absolutely terrific.
Slotted at track three, the less terrific fourth single “Smile Like You Mean It” rounds out the first half with some rousing bleakness of the Interpol variety. The minor hit also features some of Flowers’ best attempts at singing like his hero Morrissey.
Beyond that, Hot Fuss is mostly stylish filler. There’s the spiky bro-to-bro love letter “Andy, You’re A Star”—a bit like the Kinks’ “David Watts” or The Smiths’ “Reel Around The Fountain,” only with less melody—and “Believe Me Natalie,” a forgettable ode to a Studio 54 dancer that hints at what might happen if the Strokes got their hands on some sedatives and a horn section. (The Walkmen did this way better a few years later.)
Only one of those aforementioned song titles has the grammatically necessary comma, though what Flowers lacks in punctuation skills he makes up for in vocabulary and pronunciation. Check his use of “promenade” on “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” and that fancy-pants way he sings “restaurant” on “Smile Like You Mean It.” Neither word is particularly exotic, but you can practically hear the italics. On not-quite-epic closer “Everything Will Be Alright,” Flowers jacks the vocal effects and croons like a sad astronaut drifting through space.
And yet despite those affectations, Flowers didn’t pretend to be the coolest guy in the room. In early interviews, he admitted to worshipping New Order, The Cure, The Cars, Depeche Mode, and all of the other bands that critics rightly guessed were his influences, and he even told Spin in 2004 about how, during his days as a Vegas bellhop, he once rifled through a bag belonging to Morrissey guitarist Boz Boorer. Flowers also talked openly about his Mormon faith and his attempts to avoid alcohol and tobacco.
Flowers would also praise contemporaries like the Strokes, and years later, in a 2012 interview with NME, he revealed just how much that band’s 2001 debut helped to shape the nascent Killers sound. As he put it:
I remember us going into the Virgin Megastore to buy [The Strokes’] Is This It on the day it came out and, when we put it on in the car, that record just sounded so perfect. I got so depressed after that, we threw away everything and the only song that made the cut and remained was “Mr. Brightside.”
Critics weren’t sure what to make of the sound the Killers wound up with. Reviews for Hot Fuss were mixed, and while nearly everyone agreed the Killers had loads of cool influences and a handful of decent hooks, only some writers figured that was enough to recommend them. As former Spin editor and Ultragrrrl blogger Sarah Lewitinn recalled in a piece for Stereogum, a lot of New York City bands wrote them off as impostors. Lewitinn heard something special, and she wasn’t alone.
“The Rapture are artier, and Franz Ferdinand are more, well, Scottish, but this Las Vegas band has actual pop songs—in spades,” wrote an enthusiastic Jenny Eliscu for Rolling Stone. She might have added in her 3.5-star review that NYC archrival The Bravery was punchier, The Faint was darker, British Sea Power was more dramatic, The Doves were more sophisticated, and The Dears had a singer with a better Morrissey impression. Also, if Warner Bros. really did pass on the Killers because they’d just signed Hot Hot Heat and figured they already had the ’80s-revival thing covered—as manager Braden Merrick claimed in the 2014 book The Killers: Days & Ages—the label definitely got the more colorful synthpop band.
What Warner didn’t get was a band weirdly adept at distilling its various influences—wry Morrissey, cool and caustic Lou Reed, painfully earnest U2—into gigantic pop songs that would hold up over time. On subsequent albums, both with the Killers and as a solo artist, Flowers has doubled down on his Bruce Springsteen and Bono impulses and become an unrepentant ’80s arena rocker with few traces of his post-punk past. But he still sees the magic in the record that got him in the door.
“Hot Fuss was all based on fantasy,” he told Spin in 2009. “The English influences, the makeup—they were what I imagined rock was.”
He wasn’t imagining things. In 2004, Hot Fuss was what rock was. More than a decade later, with iPods obsolete and streaming the go-to format, the album is perfect for nostalgic 35-year-olds too cheap to spring for Spotify premium. Just fire up Hot Fuss hoping to hear at least those first few tunes, and if the advertisements start up before track six, slip off the headphones, smile like you mean it, and go back to wondering what the hell happened to your 20s.