There's a song on the new Killers album, Day & Age, called "Neon Tiger." It's a mid-tempo anthem that, on the verses, features a chiming, vaguely oriental synth line, staccato guitar, and singer Brandon Flowers stringing together a bunch of Pan-Asian nouns ("Assam"; "Saigon"). The chorus stomps forward on fuzzy major chords and the lyrics, "Run neon tiger/ There's a lot on your mind/ they promised just to pet you/ Don't you let them get you." It's a difficult song to parse.
And therein lies its awesomeness. Also, "Neon Tiger" wins points for reminding me of Dio's 1983 pomp-metal classic "Holy Diver," which has a strikingly similar set of lyrics. "Ride the tiger," sings Ronnie James Dio, "You can see his stripes but you know he's clean/ Oh, don't you see what I mean?" I don't. And neither does anyone else.
But "Holy Diver" and "Neon Tiger" have more important things in common than hazy tiger metaphors. Both songs reveal their creators as philosophically meandering, melodically gifted hitmakers. Fortunately, thankfully, I'm a sucker for overwrought pseudo-profundity and hi-tech hooks.
It takes a special kind of unselfconsciousness to come up with the phrase "I got soul but I'm not a soldier," as Flowers did on Hot Fuss' "All These Things That I've Done." What does that even mean? Who cares? Shouted in the middle of a gleaming, dramatic, catchy rock song, that line feels like a battle cry.
Similarly, Fuss' "When You Were Young" rocked hard in its own Springsteen-minus-narrative-intelligibility way. Recent single "Human" swaps the Boss influence for a disco beat but burns just as brightly.
The Killers understand some things that a lot of other more highly regarded bands don't: Rock music is silly. It is loud, formulaic, and frequently shallow. The most popular practitioners pose and preen and make funny faces when they play their instruments. Except for a tiny handful (e.g., Dylan, Radiohead), the success rate for rock musicians with aspirations to the oracular is far from spectacular. Yet despite all that, when the standard rock templates are subjected to a tiny bit of forward-thinking tinkering, or even just followed with élan, the music makes living seem worth the trouble.
Brandon Flowers knows this. After all, anyone who wears a bolero jacket festooned with ostrich feathers and writes skyscraping choruses set to shining keyboard cascades clearly understands that in the Venn diagram of pleasure, there's lots of overlap between the silly and sublime circles. And hey, run, neon tiger. They promised just to pet you.