The release of The Killers’ collection Direct Hits is as good a time as any to raise two questions regarding the most commercially successful rock band to emerge from Las Vegas.
What, exactly, does “hit” denote for an act that hasn’t cracked the Top 40 in half a decade?
And are we witnessing the waning of The Killers, not only as a maker of so-called “hits,” but as a going concern after 10 years together?
Direct Hits isn’t really a best-of collection. It’s a singles compilation culled from The Killers’ four studio albums, plus a couple of new songs and some assorted ephemera like a remix and a demo.
But are these hits? Does it matter in an age where success in pop music seems to increasingly have less to do with sales and radio airplay than ever before?
Let’s backtrack a bit to fully unpack this.
The Killers’ 2004 debut album Hot Fuss was unarguably a smash. It went triple platinum. But each of their subsequent three studio albums has sold many, many hundreds-of-thousands fewer copies than its predecessor.
Sure, the decade during which the quartet has been releasing music has undoubtedly been a time of shrinking sales industry-wide. But the implosion of the music industry doesn’t completely account for The Killers’ death spiral of popularity, as the band’s ability to garner radio airplay has diminished just as quickly.
It may be hard to believe, but The Killers have never had a song crack into the single digits on the Billboard singles chart. In fairness, “Mr. Brightside” made it to No. 10 and was played incessantly on MTV.
But the last time they cracked the Top 40 was “Human” five years ago. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the one that misinterprets a Hunter S. Thompson quote and has the grammatical head-scratcher of a chorus “Are we human/or are we dancer?”)
“Runaways,” the lead single from last year’s less-than-stellar fourth album Battle Born, peaked at No. 78.
Streaming data also evidences fans’ preference for vintage Killers; of the top 10 most popular Killers songs on Spotify, only two have been released in the last five years and their play counts are dwarfed by those of older material.
Again … “hits?”
It’s unclear as to whether any of this matters as The Killers can still pack stadiums, especially overseas. (All four studio albums have hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Even the turgid “Runaways” ran all the way to No. 3 in Belgium).
Perhaps of greater import to their fans is the question of whether this band has a second decade in front of them.
Maybe. Maybe not. But the indicators of a band in swift decline are piling up.
Exhibit A: their output has slowed substantially. After Hot Fuss in 2004, the band released sophomore effort Sam’s Town in 2006 and their third album Day & Age in 2008. Then a four-year interval preceded the release of their most recent collection of new material, last year’s less-than-stellar Battle Born. That album’s completion also required five producers.
Other indications certainly seem to signal strained relationships among the touring bandmates. “I am sick of this. I’m done. The end is in sight,” guitarist Dave Keuning told NME last month. That incendiary interview followed bassist Mark Stoermer’s repeated absence at shows for “personal reasons.”
Here’s drummer Ronnie Vannucci, when asked by NME about a possible Stoermer departure: “I’d hope we’d keep trucking on. But at the same time, it isn’t the same band.” (Half your rhythm section contemplating the band’s future without the other half is never a great sign.)
Stoermer returned to the fold for The Killers’ headlining gig at the Life is Beautiful festival here last month. But frontman Brandon Flowers, who banters with each of his bandmates on stage, seemed uneasy in his repartee with Stoermer during the show.
Finally, most of the band’s members are increasingly focused on other projects. Stoermer and Vannucci have side bands, and Flowers intends to spend 2014 writing and recording a follow up to Flamingo, his 2010 solo outing, for a 2015 release. While Flamingo didn’t have legs in the U.S., it was a triumph elsewhere, going gold and hitting No. 1 on the UK albums chart.
That all likely means there will be two or three Olympic Games before a new Killers studio album is released.
Will there be any appetite left for The Killers by then? CL