The Killers are one of the biggest bands in the world, and I’m not just saying that because they’re currently on our cover. Their five albums and long career have contained so many highs and so many enduring, wonderful (wonderful) tracks that it staggers you just to think about. Something else staggering to think about is how much material there must be that haven’t been on albums. 13 years of writing will produce a lot of songs, and of course The Killers know what’s the best of their material and what should and should not go on an album. But sometimes it’s hard not to be curious about what might not have been included from the Day & Age or Battle Born sessions. What stokes this curiosity even more is that we already know The Killers can put out some great B-sides. In November 2007 the band releases Sawdust, their first and only B-sides collection. Listening to it ten years on, it’s a great addition to their canon that still holds some marvelous songs.
Through the first two albums of their career–2004’s Hot Fuss and 2006’s Sam’s Town–The Killers had their identity cemented in popular culture. They were a stadium rock band in an era where no one did stadium rock, a heaping collection of blaring instrumentals, theatricality, and verbosity. Everyone loved it. Everyone still loves it. The ability to put together the connective tissues of a rock song to create an album-long narrative is a rare gift, and one that The Killers both have and embrace. Just last year I wrote about how the narrative resonance of Sam’s Town still holds deep meaning for all of us small-town kids out there. All of these things are why Sawdust stands out so much and why it still holds up, because Sawdust is so vastly different from those things.
Part of this difference comes from the simple fact that Sawdust is a B-sides album. These songs were never written to form together into any sort of cohesive tapestry. They were remixes, acoustic takes, or tracks that had not found a place on The Killers’ first two albums. Instead of a huge, sprawling journey, Sawdust is an insular experience. Three to four songs will fit together in general sound or theme before moving on to something entirely different later. This insularity is something that stands out even more with the release of Wonderful, Wonderful, which is The Killer’s most intimate, inward-looking album yet.
Musically, there’s a lot to dig into here. Sawdust opens with the grimiest, dingiest set of songs in The Killers’ discography. That unnerving drone that begins “Tranquilize” is one of my favorite openings to an album ever. Even in 2007 having Lou Reed on a track meant that it was instantly going to be cool, and his understated delivery of the lyrics (some of which contain the Christian overtones that embody Brandon Flowers’ solo work) is still a creepy joy. “All The Pretty Faces” is like the dark world parallel of The Killers, with driving riffs underscoring anger and rejection, and “Leave The Bourbon On The Shelf” is a slurred, boozy plea that hits closer than a big, extravagant number ever could.
Generally speaking, the songs on Sawdust that either came from the Sam’s Town era or separate writing sessions entirely are superior to their Hot Fuss counterparts. All of the songs mentioned so far fall into the first two categories. Hot Fuss gets the short end of the stick a lot here, with “Glamorous Indie Rock And Roll,” “Show You How,” and “The Ballad of Michael Valentine” being largely skippable. That’s not to say they’re all bad, though. “Under The Gun” is the best of Hot Fuss chic, a short driving track that sonically mimics its subject matter of hopeless, head-over-heels infatuation. There’s also Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside,” because the only thing better than “Mr. Brightside” is a nine minute long version of “Mr. Brightside.”
It also shouldn’t be surprising that a band of the caliber of The Killers would be able to make the most of the time they spent in the fabled Abbey Road Studios. The acoustic version of “Sam’s Town” takes the underlying sadness and frustration that the original hides under bombast and brings it to the forefront, to fantastic effect. These sessions also brought us the cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo And Juliet.” No offense to them or their lead singer Mark Knopfler, but The Killers stripping down of the track and Flowers’ emotional resonance makes this the definitive version of the song for me.
10 years on from Sawdust, I’m sure The Killers have a veritable treasure trove of tracks that have never seen the light of day. I’ll defer to the band on knowing which of their tracks they should or should not release, but I’ll still continue to hope. If a new B-sides collection were as good as Sawdust is even today, I’d line up to get it. I don’t think I’d be alone.
‘Sawdust’ was released on November 9, 2007.