To properly appreciate Sawdust, you must first be willing to accept that both the band’s 2004 debut, Hot Fuss, and its 2006 follow-up, Sam’s Town, have interesting aspects. The Killers are no rock ’n’ roll saviors, but for a commercial band, they have made a few decidedly noncommercial moves (appearing on The O.C. not being one of them). The band’s evolution from the straightforward pop of Hot Fuss to the greasy sound of Sam’s Town is the type of artistic growth that’s highly discouraged in the hit-driven recording industry. Sawdust, a rarities and loose-ends collection, documents the bumps along the way from pop stardom to populist guitar rockers.
Some of the seventeen songs here — the ten-minute-long Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside” and the plodding “Who Let You Go” — are nearly laughable. And the band does its best with “Shadowplay,” recorded for the Joy Division biopic, Control, but it doesn’t do the song proper justice (few bands could). Most of the songs, though, show the band in top form. “Tranquilize,” the much publicized collaboration with Lou Reed, suffers slightly from overproduction but hearkens back to Reed’s gritty 1970s heyday. On “Glamorous Indie Rock and Roll,” Flowers takes a few jabs at those who would stone him, and he takes on a passable rock-star pose on “Move Away” and “Leave the Whiskey on the Shelf.”
Given the “Shadowplay” disappointment, the great irony of Sawdust is that the album’s two real treasures are covers. The Killers offer inspired takes on Dire Straits’ “Juliet” and Kenny Rogers’s classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The tunes don’t vary much from the originals, but the band renders them with vigor and style. Few bands can cite both of these bands as influences, much less have the guts to cover them. Sawdust, despite its missteps, shows the Killers as talented and adventurous enough to do so.