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Human or Dancer: Killers Waver at Jones Beach

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It's ironic, but for the first time all night, Brandon Flowers looks human. His band, the Killers, is midway through their set at Jones Beach on Tuesday night. The stage is desert themed⎯diminutive palm trees line the floor, beads of light hang overhead like a Sahara sky, long shots of blazing canyons pan the backing screens⎯a nod to the band's Las Vegas roots. That the Wantagh sky is starless and full-mooned renders the stage less arid than bogus. As a frontman, Flowers looks similarly false, robotic. He is a study in right angles, as rigid and symmetrical as a marionette. At one point, he encourages the arena (capacity: 15,000, and from the looks of it, full) to sway their hands; our arms are Gumby's next to his, a pair of windshield wipers on full speed.

Flowers shrugs, and gives up. He's done this before. The Killers have been on tour since last July, when they played New York's Highline Ballroom. Since then, they've been all over the world, performing sometimes as many as five nights a week. They came back to New York in November, by way of Madrid and Toronto. In January, they played Ypsilanti. The next month, Auckland. The next, Glasgow. So by the time they returned to New York this week, the Killers should have been in good practice.

And to a technical extent, they are. Backed by two studio musicians⎯who, even as they pick up saxophones, guitars and violins, toil in side-stage obscurity⎯the Killers showcase hits from their recent release, Day & Age, as well as old favorites from Sam's Town (2006) and Hot Fuss (2004), effortlessly. Only one number, "Smile Like You Mean It" ⎯reworked acoustically for piano and violin⎯noticeably differs from the record. When "Bling (Confession of a King)" starts up, the lights become amber necklaces. "Higher and higher," Flowers sings, and miniature fireworks detonate on cue. The bandleader calls out to the crowd, "You feel so far away from us." He repeats himself, not in any despair, but as a matter of fact. "Touch me," a generic rock star appeal that falls flat.

It's a welcome surprise, then, when "Human," the third album's first single, begins. In part because the song is widely recognizable, it's an infusion of energy. The crowd gets involved. Flowers, in turn, loosens up. "You've gotta let me know," he chants the popular (and ungrammatical) chorus: "Are we human, or are we dancer?" It may be rhetorical, but here, laid bare before the audience, one can't help but heed the lyric⎯ "and I'm on my knees, looking for the answer"⎯and abide him.

Like Flowers' other famous line, "I got soul, but I'm not a soldier," Rolling Stone calls the lyric "impenetrable." Still, the implication is pretty straightforward. "Human" is flat-footed, dull, a soldier sans soul. By contrast, "dancer" is an evolved state, ecstatic, a singular⎯and singularized⎯condition. The subject and verb disagree, but accede to some transcendental discothèque in the strange and desperate mind of Brandon Flowers.

With that in mind, consider the case against Flowers and the Killers. Following the release of Sam's Town, the Times described them as "caught between two personas that might be described as high-school and sophomoric." Briant Hiatt at Rolling Stone found Flowers noncommittal, inarticulate. "I don't even know why people want to talk to me," the singer admitted to him. Flowers boasts that his band could become bigger than U2, but worships Springsteen. The Killers' albums are bricolages of these influences, and the singer more a persona than a personality.

What's lacking on stage tonight is precisely that: a discernible humanity. Concertgoers⎯and the Killers', by the way, are twenty- and thirty-something white people, many with children in tow⎯want more from the band than a visual soundtrack. A performance that jolts the spine, a frisson of excellence. Spontaneity, innovation, the kind of extemporaneous flourish that Springsteen, Bono, or Chris Martin have mastered, and that grants those idols access to a stratosphere the Killers are yet to pierce. Flowers should take note. It's not the dancing monkey that pleases, but proof that he's only human.

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The Killers, Jones Beach, Sep. 1, 2009
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