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What’s all the ‘Hot Fuss’ about? The 20th anniversary of The Killers’ debut classic

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Hot Fuss Killers album

This June marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Killer’s debut album, “Hot Fuss.” The band has been a staple of arena rock ever since, has sold millions of albums, and will no doubt secure a much-deserved place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at some point in the future. So, let’s take a look back at the now-classic debut LP that launched the band immediately into the musical stratosphere.

The year 2004 was still early on in the GWOT era that started after the September 11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We had a long way to go in the wars, even if we did not know it then. In terms of music, it was a pretty great year for rock and alternative music, as those genres still held a prominent place in popular music. Kings of Leon put out their second album Aha Shake Heartbreak; rock supergroup Velvet Revolver released a hard rock gem; Green Day hit their peak artistic punk potential with American Idiot; and U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb continued their renaissance. There were also classic albums released by The Drive-By Truckers (The Dirty South), Arcade Fire (Funeral), and Maroon 5 (their smash debut, Songs About Jane). All featured as stars of varying brilliance within my musical constellation that defined the earliest days I spent at the CIA.

Into this expansive musical universe launched Hot Fuss as a glittered-up new wave rock missile fired straight out of the band’s Las Vegas hometown. Other than maybe Franz Ferdinand, there was not another band out there making music that sounded like that at the time. The songs on their debut were still dominated by guitars, drums, and thumping bass, but the keyboard-driven glam rock post-punk sound was nevertheless already present on the first track (Jenny was a Friend of Mine.) At its start, the keyboards lurked in the background of the song, nestled behind the bounding bass and drum tracks – and scratching guitar riff – only to then steal center stage with about a minute left in the song. It’s as though The Killers were telling us from the outset, “keyboards are back, bitches!”

Related: Music and war: 4 songs that forever bring me back to Afghanistan

Brandon Flowers The Killers live
The Killers’ singer, keyboardist, and primary songwriter Brandon Flowers live at Hyde Park, 2017. (Photo by Raph_PH/Wikimedia Commons)

Lead singer Brandon Flowers’s keyboards would grow in prominence on subsequent Killers albums, and come to ultimately define the band’s sound in many ways. Despite that, Hot Fuss was still an alternative rock album through and through. It was just a different kind of alternative for the time. While the band’s later dance track-style hits, like Human and The Man, would have been as out of place on Hot Fuss as John Travolta’s character from Grease in Saturday Night Fever, one can nevertheless see in both instances the green shoots of what would come later.

Lyrically, the songs displayed a grittier edge than most of the band’s later hits, as lyricist Flowers had not yet adopted his Springsteen-esque writing style brimming with Americana landscapes, the heartbreak and triumph of life’s daily struggles, small towns, and forsaken dreams. Despite that, one could already sense the emergence of the “gold-hearted boy” approach that Brandon Flowers would later feature in future songs.

As far as the hits go, if you were not immediately gripped by the flamboyantly catchy lead singles Somebody Told Me or Mr. Brightside – which has been streamed over two billion times globally since Spotify became a thing – then you were won over by the soulful sing-along anthem, All These Things That I’ve Done. Flowers’s peculiar use of esoteric word combinations – the uncharitable would perhaps call them nonsensical – was already on display in “All These Things…” The refrain “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” presaged future poetic headscratchers like “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman” and “Are we human or are we dancer?” This reviewer chooses to see the style as obtuse and rich lyrical wordplay, but whatever, it’s at least unique.

Related: Still in Saigon: How a Vietnam War song can speak to all veterans

The Killers live
The Killers perform live in 2009. (Photo by Ben Sutherland/Wikimedia Commons)

The album’s non-hit tracks are also great. There is not a bit of excess musical fat present on the lean, muscular album. The synth-rock bombast of On Top is perhaps the most New Age-sounding track on the album, while Midnight Show sounds like early Boy-era U2, with a scathing guitar riff and post-punk sensibility. And, as all classic albums must do, the LP ended with a track that wrapped up the musical gift in a perfect bow: Everything Will Be Alright is the band’s way of signing off by comforting us that despite the feelings of alienation, jealousy, and loneliness that dominate some of the album’s biggest tracks, hope ultimately prevails. Flowers would go on to make that a central and prevailing theme of the band’s extensive future songbook.

Essentially, the musical foundations of The Killers were firmly laid on their debut album: the keyboards, the soaring lyrical style, the big sing-along anthems, and the New Age/post-punk vibrancy. The band came stomping out of Vegas fully on fire from album one, and 20 years and some seven-plus million units sold later, Hot Fuss still sounds as fresh and urgent as it did in 2004. As the band labeled its music on a Hot Fuss bonus track, it was “glamorous indie rock and roll.” Given how many young people alone continue to discover and stream the global smash hit Mr. Brightside each year, it is no stretch to say that Hot Fuss will be relevant for decades to come. For me personally, I still go back in my mind sometimes to Afghanistan when I hear these songs today, and I am sure that musical memory jogging will persist for as long as I am around.

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.