When the Killers' singer Brandon Flowers crossed the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood before a recent taping of "Jimmy Kimmel Live," he displayed the first sign that the band was beginning anew: He lacked a mustache.
Around the time of the Killers' 2006 second album, "Sam's Town," Flowers grew a thick push broom worthy of that record's grandiloquent Americana. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci one-upped him with a fearsome Fu Manchu, and bassist Mark Stoermer let his blond scruff run wild. That album's unapologetic Springsteen-philia proved something of a critical brick, however, and Flowers' pronouncement that "Sam's Town" was "one of the best albums in the past 20 years" made the record ripe for dissenting opinions.
Those whiskers are gone now, and Flowers' preferred accessory for his "Kimmel" performance was a natty schoolboy jacket with feather epaulets. Guitarist Dave Keuning wore a barely there synthetic tiger-print shirt, and the band's stage setup was littered with glowing faux palm trees befitting its hometown of Las Vegas. The Killers' third studio album, "Day & Age," released Tuesday, is their furthest-reaching yet: a melange of Roxy Music saxophone pomp, roller-rink disco and jittery synth rave-ups supporting Flowers' newly surrealist lyrics.
Rock music is down to maybe a half-dozen bands who consistently reinvent themselves and still go platinum each time. But after their grand ambitions for "Sam's Town" met a fairly resounding shrug from tastemakers -- and moved about half of "Hot Fuss' " 3 million copies in the U.S. -- the question remains: Will the Killers' second attempt at an aesthetic makeover keep them in that ever-rarer clique?
"I let [those criticisms] affect me a lot," Flowers said. "But one thing we gained from it was that when we came back to the towns where those reviews were, we'd just play louder and we became a really great live band. It took that confidence to do what we did with this album."
In some ways, "Day & Age" feels like a direct riposte to the earnest and old-fashioned American arena rock ideals behind "Sam's Town." The new single "Human," a pillowy and remix-ready sliver of synth-pop, has already yielded one of 2008's most head-scratching and grammatically suspect choruses, now familiar to anyone who has spent time with rock radio recently: "Are we human / or are we dancer?"
Other lyrics seem to offer eulogies for the band's turn at whiskey-and-highways mythology, like when Flowers asks to "Give my regards to soul and romance, they always did the best they could," or in "Spaceman," in which Flowers ironically reassures himself that "The song-maker says it ain't so bad." On "Day & Age's" first track, "Losing Touch," Flowers more directly taunts the band's skeptics: "You go run and tell your friends I'm losing touch / Fill their heads with rumors of impending doom / It must be true."
But despite "Day & Age's" critical ruminations, the band's famed self-assurance seems to have survived the reception of "Sam's Town" intact.
"I love the challenge of playing to naysayers," drummer Vannucci said. "I love that I can drive it home and make believers out of people."
The band usually doesn't have to try hard to do so: Upon striding into the Roosevelt lobby, Vannucci was instantly encircled by a small pack of starry-eyed autograph seekers. Between songs at the "Kimmel" performance later that day, Flowers said to the crowd, "We only want to please you," reaffirming the idea that "Day & Age's" pointedly eclectic genre-hopping still aims straight at the audience's pop pleasure centers. The laser-sharp funk bass lines of "Joy Ride" and margarita-ready bossa nova of "I Can't Stay" shouldn't have any business being on the same record, but the Killers have spent enough time on the pop charts to wrangle a worthy single from any stray arrangement idea. On the recent B-sides collection "Sawdust," it even turned a cover of the notoriously dour Joy Division song "Shadowplay" into a charting mainstream rock hit.
"There's a big misconception that you can't be artistic or sophisticated and be big," Flowers said. "We should be praised for being on alternative radio and pop radio and doing the things that we do. It's not like anything else."
Part of the credit for the album's coherence belongs to new producer Stuart Price, who midwifed the record at the band's new home studio five minutes off the Vegas Strip. The band recorded "Sam's Town" in a studio located in the heart of the Palms Casino, a coolly designed place that Flowers described as having "weird ideas about what a couch should be."
The new home studio sports the more metaphorically apt name Battle Born, taken from the Nevada state flag. It's a functional symbol of a band trying to slough off expectations while nursing open ambitions to remain one of the biggest acts in rock music. The band doesn't really have a peer in the American rock scene that can claim similar platinum sales and ambitions to resurrect Dire Straits as a hip influence.