In the nearly 20 years since they burst onto the scene with their debut album, Y2K post-punk revival staple Hot Fuss, The Killers have been strongly associated with flamboyant and gloriously messy new wave pastiche. The album’s lead single “Mr. Brightside,” with its campy theatrics and Moulin Rouge-inspired music video, is an all-time-great pop song that feels just as fresh as it did in 2004.
What set Hot Fuss apart from other indie favorites of the time was its candor about the awkward and embarrassing side of going out and hooking up in your early 20s. Underneath all the glam and “guyliner,” these are songs for those of us who always feel like the lamest people at the coolest party.
All that being said, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they haven’t made music like that since.
The evolution of The Killers was best represented by the fans at the Dickies Arena stop of their Imploding the Mirage Tour on Saturday. Teenage dirtbags, aging hipsters and entire Mormon families came together to support their shared idols in tepid solidarity. Standing in general admission, you were equally likely to be elbowed in the face by a goth girl as you were to be harassed by a 40-something dad for standing in “his” spot. There was also a little kid sitting on the floor of the barricade wearing noise-cancelling headphones and playing a video game while his millennial parents geeked out. None of these people seemed out of place.
The first opener was an Austin band named Me Nd Adam, and the most notable thing about their set was that nobody seemed to know they were playing, resulting in a comically palpable vibe shift.
As the backing band members took to the stage at 7:30 p.m. on the dot, the sinking realization that there was actually a third band on the bill rolled through the audience of about 13,000 strong at almost the exact same time.
“Why does Johnny Marr have a mullet?” many people in the audience were probably thinking. “And why is he exuding such potent radio indie dude-bro energy?”
Fortunately for these people, the legendary guitarist and cofounder of The Smiths took to the stage almost exactly one hour after starting what seemed like a Zumiez commercial of a set.
In case anyone is still in doubt, let it be known that Marr is and always has been the superior ex-Smith. He’s an ace guitarist, a profoundly charismatic performer and far less likely to make some unhinged, out of pocket political statement than his more commercially successful counterpart Morrisey. Striking a balance between playing your old band’s hits (which, we feel kind of obliged to mention, did not include “The Queen Is Dead”) while cultivating interest in your solo work is often a thankless task, but Marr rose to the challenge with seamless finesse.
Marr was the supporting act in the same sense that books and movies have supporting characters. He may not have had top billing, but he was a crucial component of the show nonetheless. Think of his set as the first chapter. Anyone who skipped it was missing a lot of context for some stuff that happened later.
The Killers came on at 9:36 p.m., bringing with them every means of spectacle at their disposal. With pyrotechnics, lasers, intricate animations and graphics, and three separate confetti cannon firings, it was made clear that the band is fully embracing their status as bona fide legacy arena rock stars, fully on par with their '80s idols.
But have they truly earned such a title?
Success and longevity in the music industry are the dream, but with that comes the need to ask some tough questions. When have you had your last hit? When do you stop expecting the audience to know your new songs? At what point is your setlist (and your legacy) set in stone for the rest of your career?
The Killers didn’t seem like they were ready to think about these questions. But seeing how the crowd was borderline euphoric during Hot Fuss deep cuts such as “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” but were seated, checking their phones and topping off their drinks during recent singles such as this year’s “Boy,” it seems like those questions have been answered for them.
Of course, The Killers have yet to hit two decades of mainstream success, and later-career comebacks have happened to bands far less loved. What’s holding them back?
On Hot Fuss, frontman and songwriter Brandon Flowers leaned into his sensitive party boy side to massive and enduring success. But he was 22 when he wrote those songs. He’s now 41, a husband, father and devout Mormon. He’s always been endearingly earnest, wearing his inspiration on his sleeve and feverishly chasing his muse wherever it takes him. Flowers is not the kind to play a version of himself that doesn’t exist anymore, and the music of The Killers has always been a snapshot of his present outlook on life.
About halfway through the show, Flowers quipped that “during the pandemic, The Killers became a country band.” The joke here, we assume, was that while their music may not have the twang we associate with the genre, their lyrics have utilized motifs of small-town family values as far back as Sam’s Town in 2006.
It’s an unfortunate nexus in his career: Should Flowers be his genuine self at the expense of all the luster that The Killers were previously afforded, or should he contrive the same fledgling energy as he did in 2004 to cultivate hype and allure for the band?
The Killers have a discography stacked with classics with which they can tour for decades. Hits like “Somebody Told Me,” “When You Were Young” and “Human” have set them for life. But as Flowers’ creative curiosity leads him further away from fabulous Las Vegas and deeper into the heartland, it’s incumbent on him to persuade longtime fans to follow.
During the final act of their show, The Killers made their case for just that. With mid-career fan favorites “A Dustland Fairytale” and “Runaways” leading into their more upbeat newer offerings such as “Caution” and the rather on-the-nose “Dying Breed,” the band convinced Fort Worth that you can, in fact, dance to small-town melancholy. They tied it all together with their longtime go-to closer, “All These Things That I’ve Done,” with the repeated lyric, “Don’t you put me on the back burner,” serving as their closing statement.
The encore saw them teaming up with Johnny Marr for not one but two versions of “Mr. Brightside.” They opened with the more subdued version, which reflected their more recent musical leanings, before launching into the classic version of the frenetic, neurotic breakup anthem that made them stars. The merging of past and present, both with the two arrangements and inclusion of one of their childhood heroes, felt like a bold declaration of self-assured optimism, proud of their past and looking forward to the future.