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Title: ‘When You Were Young’
Where to find it: ‘Sam’s Town’ (2006, Island Records)
Performed by: The Killers
Words by: Brandon Flowers

During the ‘Hot Fuss’ era, I was pretty obsessed with Brandon Flowers and The Killers. With the prominence of the synthesizer in their music and Flowers citing Duran Duran has a key influence, a Duranie like me didn’t stand a chance. While ‘Hot Fuss’ remains on my mp3 player, as does their third album ‘Day and Age’, I never warmed up to sophomore LP ‘Sam’s Town’. The one song that escaped my writing off the rest of their second album is ‘When We Were Young’, which invokes something not commonly found in pop songs, at least with any level of seriousness: religion.

If you know anything about the Killers, or indeed Brandon Flowers himself, is that he is a proud, card-carrying Mormon. Mormons in America, like Roman Catholics, are often painted as a caricature of being out of touch. Recall Mitt Romney’s 47% comment that killed his chances at becoming President. (I guess I shouldn’t groan too much, since there’s a chance Mitt might return for another bid in 2020 and could potentially be our Commander-in-Chief!) Mormons also abide by some strange rules. They’re not supposed to drink soda or any drinks with caffeine in it or smoke. Interestingly, in this short interview last year after album ‘Wonderful Wonderful’ was released, he reveals he can’t resist a Coke and took up smoking when he worked as a busboy in Las Vegas just so he would get breaks at work.

Whether consciously or not, I think it’s a good thing Flowers hasn’t focused on God and religion in Killers songs. As a result, the Killers’ back catalogue, at least lyrically, is much more accessible and relatable to a much wider audience, an audience that might otherwise be put off by uber religious overtones. The appearance of ‘When You Were Young’, then, is an interesting one. It names Jesus, so is it a religious song? Or is ‘Jesus’ simply a metaphor for a mortal who appears to be a savior like Jesus?

Before we go down the rabbit hole, the words:

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 1
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young

Verse 2
Can we climb this mountain
I don’t know
Higher now than ever before
I know we can make it if we take it slow
Let’s take it easy
Easy now
Watch it go

Chorus 2
We’re burning down the highway skyline
On the back of a hurricane
That started turning
When you were young
When you were young

Bridge
And sometimes you close your eyes
And see the place where you used to live
When you were young

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1
You sit there in your heartache
Waiting on some beautiful boy to
To save you from your old ways
You play forgiveness
Watch it now
Here he comes

Chorus 3
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But he talks like a gentleman
Like you imagined
When you were young
(Talks like a gentleman)
(Like you imagined)
When you were young

Outro
I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

Now, the analysis:

I find this song particularly fascinating for the emotions it manages to raise inside me. Even if you’re not religious or even in any way spiritual, there’s no denying the power in both the way the song builds and a booming strength in Flowers’ vocals. This combination is explosive. Considering ‘When You Were Young’ was the Killers’ attempt to capture ‘Born to Run’ / ‘Thunder Road’-era Bruce Springsteen in a pop song, this isn’t so surprising. If you forgot this period in the Killers’ history, read this opinion piece about ‘Sam’s Town’ a decade after its release, in which author Steven Hyden recalls an interview Flowers did with Blender’s Jonathan Weiner and proclaims his love for The Boss. Beyond this paragraph in Hyden’s piece, it faithfully reports on the time when what was coming out of Flowers’ mouth in interviews was his band’s own worst enemy.

The lyrics for ‘When You Were Young’ by themselves are particularly poignant, returning us to a place of innocence, when life was simpler and our imagined happily ever after was far off in the distance but still seemed entirely attainable. It’s a cool trick, that any young music fan who comes across ‘Sam’s Town’ now will be in this boat, long after those of us who were around for its release, and be in the same exact position we were then. As we get older, the illusion of this happily ever after breaks, whether acutely like a shattered mirror after a spouse cheats on us, or the cracks appear and grow wider over time as we get hurt repeatedly. Some of us play a game of pretend that everything’s just fine and dandy. Others try to hold on to the reality, deciding to suffer through it because the thought of being an escapist is worse. Those people hope the painful reality won’t break them before they get to the other side. Neither of these choices is better than the other.

Over the years, I’ve read bits of psychobabble here and there on how society has brainwashed women to expect and wait for a man to come rescue them because they can’t take care of themselves, that they’re incomplete without a man. Some of the more controversial pieces I’ve seen, including this one, paint Disney as one of the worst offenders when it comes in promulgating what’s called here as ‘the Disney princess effect’. While I see their point, it discounts us women – all of us who were once young girls – from making up our own minds. There’s a different between watching a movie or reading fiction and what you decide you want in real life, right?

In the first verse and chorus of the song, Brandon Flowers is a bystander, talking to a woman who’s visibly upset, or imagining he can have a conversation with her. “You sit there in your heartache / Waiting on some beautiful boy to / To save you from your old ways” can represent the mythical knight on a white horse, coming to rescue her. This is a man looking over a woman’s predicament. How a man views a relationship ending or one on the rocks is, most times, very different than how a woman would view the same situation. “You play forgiveness” suggests the woman is merely going through the moments of forgiveness without actually believing it herself. Then “Watch it now / Here he comes”, the man she’s forgiven, in theory at least, returns to her.

The anthemic chorus comes in and puts the pedal to the metal. He’s still imagining what’s going through her head. He’s not judgmental. He’s sensitive to the fantasy that’s been sitting inside her mind for years: “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus / but he talks like a gentleman / like you imagined / when you were young”.

Verse 2 indicates obstacles and conflict, using a formidable mountain as a metaphor: think Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s peerless ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. I’m imagining that Flowers is the other man, not the one of her dreams, but he’s insistent that despite the mountain being “higher now than ever before,” with him, “I know we can make it if we take it slow.” The modified chorus that follows suggests further upheaval and a life that isn’t going as smoothly as we wish: “We’re burning down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane / That started turning”. The repetition of the title here and throughout drives home the overarching influence of what the girl wished for when she was young.

I’ve honestly thought long and hard about the bridge and have trouble wrapping my head around it. The only explanation that makes sense to me is a religious one. If you take it literally and equate the devil’s water to alcohol, it makes sense from a Mormon point of view. Taking it wider into the world of bigger vices, for Mormons or not, the bridge seems to take on the idea of sinning, of doing something bad in God’s eyes, and saying doing something ‘bad’ actually as terrible as everyone says it is. Sure, don’t jump in the pool with the devil, but stick your toes in there like everyone else, and you’ll be all right.

They say the devil’s water
It ain’t so sweet
You don’t have to drink right now
But you can dip your feet
Every once in a little while

Verse 1 repeats and the chorus returns with echoed lines. But have a look how the words change at the outro. It’s Flowers’ last stab at reminding the girl that he understands her childhood dream but “more than you’ll ever know,“ the other guy isn’t who she thinks he is. And he’s definitely not his savior. The official promo video has religious overtones and it’s staged so that the end of the song comes across as a warning to the girl. You realize everything you’ve watched before that moment is what will soon be for her. This isn’t a video analysis blog but I’m sure someone who’s into that would have a field day with it.

I said he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
But more than you’ll ever know

If you’ve wondered why this song is so catchy and easy to sing, there’s a reason: Flowers admits it was written with one chord progression and some simple variations of that progression. You weren’t just imagining it. Even he appreciates the simplicity of the song!

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