Single Review: The Killers & Bruce Springsteen-“Dustland”
By Fluffy Cat // Alumni DJ
It seems that there is a fascination with Bruce Springsteen in the alternative music scene in the last year. Bleachers’ coming album Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night, seems to be a metaphorical ode to the sort of Roy Orbison/jukebox throwbacks that were evocative of Born to Run, and Bruce himself adds a haunting backing voice to the second chorus of “Chinatown.”
Bruce’s own album, Letter to You, echoed through the annals of indie stations and put a 71-year-old man on airwaves where the average artist is probably a couple of years out of college and starving for their first hit or two. It’s rather anachronistic to see a ’70s legend put his heart and soul out to change the future of music, not quite unlike Roy Orbison in the dying years of his life with the Traveling Wilburys, and I welcome it wholeheartedly.
It feels like Bruce is giving his sign of approval to various bands, and this forms the receiving partner of a handshake for a partnership. For the other hand this time around, we have The Killers, a wildly successful group coming off of a fantastic album, Imploding the Mirage, that combines an arena-shattering synth-rock with lyricism about listening to one’s heart and breaking the mold that was set for us.
They’ve worn their tape deck hearts on their sleeves for almost two decades now, exchanging the tapes every so often, but keeping ones like Springsteen’s close to their chests. This track, one of the singles from their 2008 album Day & Age, evokes a Springsteen-ian expansion of mundane daily life to champion the struggles of Brandon Flowers’ parents, and let Brandon process the coming mortality whose burden he would have to carry.
Age really makes this track evolve: Flowers has since experienced the loss of his mother, and there is a weariness that is carried in his voice that wasn’t there twelve years ago. For a bit of context on this song’s rendition, The Killers posted a long-form Instagram post detailing the connection between him and Springsteen. “Dustland” was a personal request from Springsteen, who had messaged Flowers from a number that the latter had never seen before, saying that he saw their Glastonbury concert and that “we gotta do ‘Dustland’ one day.”
Flowers cited Springsteen as someone who tempered a desire to focus on the things ‘larger than life’ through his treatment of the lives of ‘invisible people,’ and cites Born to Run as a major influence for the 2006 album Sam’s Town. No wonder that a track in the immediate aftermath of that album, one of the follow-up’s singles, would take on that energy with such an impending event in Flowers’ life.
In stark contrast to songs like “My Own Soul’s Warning” and “Caution” off of The Killers’ previous studio album, Flowers seems restrained and reserved. The same kind of energy would never work in this retelling of a life that has now gone up in smoke, not less in combination with the smoky, ethereal voice of Springsteen.
I must also say that I prefer this version to the studio album version. I think that time has aged the lyrics well, and Flowers’ new interpretation of the vocal part adds a new character to it. Hearing Springsteen sing Killers’ verses over a synth-y beat is a certainly jarring experience. His mid-80s forays aside, Springsteen has been more focused on the folk side of things in the past few years, and my preferences for Springsteen have fallen more in the early and later lanes of his career.
The track comes as a lovely surprise. Yet, I see a lot of the critical opinion from fans focused on it as if it were a track that was destined for release on a studio album. I have heard comparisons to the aforementioned “Chinatown,” in particular, as a far superior ‘duet’ that has echoed through the radio waves as of late. I don’t think that I can give it the same treatment, however.
This is a one-off composition, built off a mutual respect and a desire to take a new look at an old song. “Chinatown,” even if I prefer it to “Dustland,” is a lead single destined to headline a studio album by the magnificent Jack Antonoff and his band, and it’s a new song. What I must elaborate is that this track seems to be a one-off performance.
I think that the point of the song, which seems like a reckoning with the feelings that come with a parent’s mortality, a sort of therapy by music, is a moment in time for Flowers. In some ways, the song has served its original purpose. The duet will never do the same thing that the original did, and that’s okay. It has been 13 years since the song’s release; Flowers is turning 40 on June 21st, and he has never seemed more confident in his own music.
Instead, and this is the important part: This duet serves as a way for both partners to look back on their lives. Springsteen has been very reflective in his most recent work, playing on retro-styled tracks and reviving lyrics older than Flowers to create some of his best work. They wanted to elaborate on the beauty of the everyday person, and they chose to use “a Dustland fairytale” as the backdrop by which to work together and celebrate a theme that brings the two together.
As a result, the track has evolved into something completely new. It certainly has its flaws, and I think that this is not a perfect performance. However, it feels like two artists of different generations retooling a past song with present undertones, and this is the most important part. Each seems to be wrestling with mortality in different ways, and the echoes of their voices mingled together sing a howling cry against it. This work, built off a mutual appreciation of each other’s art form, serves as that celebration of life both gone in the dust and still here in the sand. “Dustland” ain’t a beauty, but hey, it’s alright. It’s doing just fine.
Listen to the new single here!