Look on the Brightside: The Killers do make sense as an ACL headliner

The Las Vegas rockers may only have one massive album, but oh, what an album.

Are you excited to see The Killers, or are you just excited to hear “Mr. Brightside”?

Two sides of one glammed-out coin. Flip to consider two arguments about the band’s Austin City Limits Music Festival headliner slot:

  1. The Killers made “Hot Fuss,” an album so great that a billing any lower would be a scandal worthy of Olivia Pope.
  2. The Killers have only made one truly mammoth album, “Hot Fuss,” so they’re an idiosyncratic — nay, weird — choice to close the final night of Austin’s biggest fall music event.

The Las Vegas band behind that 2004 album, with its unshakable hold on the consciousness of anyone even cursorily aware of Bush-era popular music, nailed a spot in the rock firmament with an all-time great debut. The year after its release, the Killers’ opening salvo snagged the No. 17 spot on Billboard’s best-selling albums list, besting the Black Eyed Peas’ “Monkey Business.” Yeah, the “My Humps” one.

Brandon Flowers, Ronnie Vannucci Jr., Mark Stoermer and Dave Keuning have outlasted many of the signature sounds of their birth year. Evanescence isn’t singing Zilker Park to sleep with “My Immortal.” Cockroach-like, the Killers survive — and thrive. In 2017, they’ve been given the kind of ACL billing that would signify either massive, contemporary popularity (like Chance the Rapper, or last year’s Kendrick Lamar) or undeniably iconic pop cultural stature (like Jay-Z, or last year’s Radiohead).

The Killers’ latest single, irony-fortified disco strutter “The Man,” has topped the adult alternative chart, yet the Hot 100 eludes Flowers’ musical reconciliation with his younger self’s macho hubris. (“Runaways,” from 2012, was the Killers’ last Hot 100 single, for what it’s worth, aside from the Christmas single “Boots.”) You might hear it on 101X, but song of the summer it’s not.

On the other hand, the Killers’ new album, “Wonderful, Wonderful,” just hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — their first time there. “Hot Fuss” peaked at No. 7; sophomore outing “Sam’s Town” peaked at No. 2. They can move units, even with weak streaming numbers. But only “Hot Fuss” has gone triple platinum.

So, the boys from Nevada might not be the first band your mother can name, but their catalog has quietly insinuated itself into the American soundtrack over the past 13 years. What collateral, then, do the Killers put down to secure headlining bonafides?

“Somebody Told Me.” And “Smile Like You Mean It,” “All These Things I’ve Done,” “On Top” and “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine.” Oh, and “When You Were Young,” natch, and “Human.”

And yes: The Killers have “Mr. Brightside.” That song, as internet lore occasionally reminds us, has famously charted in the top 100 tracks in the United Kingdom every year since its 2004 debut. Flowers told Rolling Stone this month that it “keeps snowballing and getting bigger,” but he hopes not at the expense of any of the band’s other work.

“Mr Brightside,” like all of “Hot Fuss,” is spiky, petulant and glamorous. It sounds like the years when a burned CD with the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand on it was proof You Got It. At a festival, nostalgia always lures a throng. Flowers’ “Hot Fuss” vocals are cold, androgynous and faintly British in a way they would never be again. An icy, detached delinquency permeates songs about a shimmy and a shake. The Killers run the night, its synth-illuminated guitar rock says at every turn. If you don’t like it, hey, shut up, hey, shut up.

What to make of the band’s endurance, then? They headlined Friday night at Lollapalooza (a C3 Presents-organized festival, just like ACL) in August, where they reportedly drew crowds bigger than Radiohead’s at the same festival last year. The Killers’ followers, called Victims, were named the 12th-most active fanbase on Twitter in 2014, between Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters and Ariana Grande’s Arianators. There’s also no debate that Flowers is a charm bomb. His 2015 solo set at ACL, bookended by two Killers hits, flooded a late-afternoon, big-stage set with charisma.

“Mr. Brightside” isn’t getting bigger, as Flowers said. It’s always been supermassive, the burning star at the center of the Killers’ solar system. All other Killers works orbit around it, from the grandiose Springsteenism of 2012’s “Battle Born” to the career-aggregate gloss of this year’s “Wonderful, Wonderful.” If the band’s listeners do, too, what of it? “Mr. Brightside” is a star that lends its light to everything else the Killers have ever done. There’s no shadow for the band to live in, despite the fears of their sharply tailored, ever-smiling frontman. If one song’s gravitational pull can keep the Killers spinning, it can certainly send ACL’s 16th year out into the night.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the Killers’ chart success with “Wonderful, Wonderful,” which occurred after publication.

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