Thursday, February 17, 2011


Let's establish something from the get-go. Brandon Flowers loves Las Vegas. LOVES it. LOVES IT. He named his debut solo album Flamingo in honor of one of the city's famous hotels. His next album could be called LAS VEGAS: AWESOME and he could use the songs as a soundtrack for his campaign to become mayor. So there was no one else I could ever think of writing about when I got to Nevada. Not that there aren't a multitude of other artists associated with Vegas-- The Rat Pack, of course, as well as dozens of others who have taken up residence at various casinos and theatrical, now-mostly-defunct emo act Panic! at the Disco-- but no one seems to engage as personally with the city and state as native son Flowers, born in the Vegas suburb Henderson, NV.

One side of Flowers' Las Vegas is the one that appears in the ubiquitous commercials promising "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas." Bright, glamorous (?), fun more than anything else. On the title track of his solo album, Flowers bids us 'Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas'-- a song he prefaces at gigs with a story about passing the iconic sign as a kid from the suburbs. In 'Welcome,' 'Sam's Town,' 'Neon Tiger,' and several other songs from the Killers catalog, it becomes clear that Flowers has a genuine tourist's of affection for Vegas as a mecca for flash and entertainment. 'Sam's Town' [a nickname for Vegas] "rolls that world right off [Flowers'] shoulders;" he buys into the image of Vegas as an escape.

However, there's also a certain cynicism in Flowers' Vegas that suggests he knows it better than your average tourist. In Welcome he asks, "Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?" Everyone realizes that there's a lack of substance underneath Vegas' flash, and that whatever substance it has is seedy at best. In 'Sam's Town,' Flowers seems defeated by the city-- "Nobody ever had a dream round here," he begins, "I don't really mind that-- it's starting to get to me." 'Welcome' reimagines the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty for Vegas-- "Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins, Las Vegas." It's an interesting take on the American dream, something of a parody, and the song itself takes on that style as well. It's overly grand (even for Flowers), with a big, arching chorus and a lengthy run time. It's Flowers' answer to a Vegas show or the hotels that are parodies of real places around the world.

The most interesting thing about Flowers' portrayals of Vegas is that they constantly reference the American dream, even as they doubt that the city can be a place to fulfill it. 'Sam's Town' is a song about Americana and success, as is much of the eponymous album. "My brother, he was born on the Fourth of July," Flowers proclaims. (Strangely enough, a true fact.) In 'Sam's Town' and 'Bling,' Flowers finds a realization of the dreams of success he places on Las Vegas. And in some ways, Vegas is a realization of a certain American dream. It's big, it's bright, it's full of money and fun. But as we've seen in other 'fun' states like California and Florida, sun and relaxation comes with a sense of impermanence or falsity. The flipside to the American dream of success is the need to work hard, to suffer in some Puritanical way, and places like Vegas that lack that facet always bring with them some sense of suspicion.

Flowers also writes frequently about the rest of Nevada, and the dichotomy of Vegas glitz and grimy desert tableaux in his solo album and his Killers discography represent the state itself fairly well. In his digressions into the desert, Flowers seems to find more hope and spiritual resonance than he does in the glitter pastiche of Vegas. Despite being under 30, he channels a world-weary Dylan or Springsteen when dealing with the 'Dustland' that surrounds his hometown. There's more purity and personal engagement in these tracks, and listeners get the sense that this is where Flowers really finds the American dream. He writes about his family when he writes about the desert-- his siblings, the parents he idealizes in 'Dustland' and 'The Clock Was Ticking' as an ideal couple. Critics have been harsh with Flowers for his sudden transitions into down-home diction on tracks like 'This River Is Wild' after the British overtones of debut Hot Fuss, but I don't think it's entirely an act. It might be more a revelation. Maybe it's easier for Flowers to pretend-- to be a Vegas showman with slick faux-English production like the fake Eiffel Tower on the Strip-- than it is for him to dig into the reality of his childhood and share it with listeners.

Moving back to Vegas, Flowers' disillusionment with the city is mirrored in Hunter S. Thompson's Gonzo classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A long-weekend look at the city through a haze of drugs, Thompson's writing is a snapshot of all Vegas' excesses. It's not as grandiose or idealized as Flowers' takes on the city, but there's a similar loss of touch with reality. Critics point to the notion in Thompson's writing of "solace in excess," the idea that when you cannot think of any other way to be content, you simply seek and acquire as much as possible. For Thompson in Fear and Loathing this comes in the form of drugs. In one of Thompson's favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is the original champion of 'solace in excess.' Without a family name to bolster him and desperate to reclaim a childhood love, he throws lavish parties, buys houses and cars, and in one famous scene from the novel owns enough shirts that it makes that childhood love weep to see them all. Gatsby and Thompson take parallel journeys in their respective works, seeking the American dream of success and happiness through temporary, material acquisitions and vapid escapes and coming up with nothing in the end. Vegas, equally entertaining but hollow, is the city for both of them-- maybe in a modern version Gatsby would go there instead of East Egg. It's this side of Vegas that Flowers fears and rejects, a substanceless place of constant consumption and disposal. Maybe it's why he prefers the desert.

All these elements-- Flowers' Vegas and desert, Thompson, Gatsby-- come back together in a final Killers track. 'Read My Mind' is arguably the centerpiece of Sam's Town, a driving burst of synth backing up some of Flowers' strongest lyrics:

On the corner of main street
Just tryin' to keep it in line
You say you wanna move on and
You say I'm falling behind
Can you read my mind?

I never really gave up on
Breakin' out of this two-star town
I got the green light
I got a little fight
I'm gonna turn this thing around
Can you read my mind?

The good old days, the honest man;
The restless heart, the Promised Land
A subtle kiss that no one sees;
A broken wrist and a big trapeze

Oh well I don't mind, if you don't mind
Cause I don't shine if you don't shine
Before you go, can you read my mind?

It’s funny how you just break down
Waitin' on some sign
I pull up to the front of your driveway
With magic soakin' my spine
Can you read my mind?

The teenage queen, the loaded gun;
The drop dead dream, the Chosen One
A southern drawl, a world unseen;
A city wall and a trampoline

Slippin’ in my faith until I fall
You never returned that call
Woman, open the door, don't let it sting
I wanna breathe that fire again

The stars are blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun
When you read my mind

There's less 'story' to this track than many Killers songs, but the images are strong enough to create the dichotomy you need to understand. Flowers creates a balance between purity-- the teenage queen, the Promised Land, the secret kiss-- and corruption or confinement in the city-- "a broken wrist and a big trapeze," the loaded gun. In the end, as so many American songwriters do, he wants escape. He's most likely to seek it outside Vegas, where the "stars are blazing." He uses a natural image, and one that would be impossible to see above all Vegas' lights, to symbolize the attainment of what he really wants: the connection with another person that he idealizes in songs about his parents and his desert upbringing. Flowers refuses the theory of 'solace in excess,' trampolining over the city wall that confines Thompson as he's holed up in a Vegas hotel room. Flowers isn't unaware of Gatsby either-- "I've got the green light/I've got a little fight" is a reference to the light on the end of Daisy's dock in Fitzgerald's novel, known to anyone who's taken a high school English course. The green light represents Daisy and love, the things Gatsby wants most but can't attain through the excesses of his lifestyle. Like Flowers, what he wants is more organic than what money can buy in Vegas.

In one way, Vegas is its own unattainable dream. Flowers' wish to "break...out of this two star town" is double-edged. Is he dismissing Vegas, or echoing the more common American dream of making it in the big city? Who but Americans, bolstered with lingering Manifest Destiny, would have the audacity to construct a city in the desert? Flowers and Gatsby could appreciate that-- the desire to create, to strive and improve and achieve a dream. The excess of Vegas gets condemned overall, but maybe solace remains in the notion that there is no dream that can't be achieved. You can make an oasis in the desert, you can go there and win a million dollars, you can jump the wall or finally swim to the green light.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas
Sam's Town
A Dustland Fairytale
Read My Mind

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