David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 28: The Killers (When You Were Young)

May 24, 2020

When you are into popular music the way I am, as you get older, you inevitably grow out of touch to what the younger generations are listening to. Since about 2000, as I stumbled into my 40's, I have lamented the absence of good old rock and roll on the music charts. The truth of the matter is that since I don't listen to radio and have absolutely no boat or oar in the mainstream, I can't even tell you what is on the charts. Taylor Swift? Is she still releasing singles? Kanye West? Is he still releasing singles? Are people still buying them? Honestly, I don't know. I only know their names because I bump into younger people all the time; something is bound to rub off.

Even when I almost accidentally stumble onto "rock music" that seems popular, I doubt my own barometer.  Hootie & The Blowfish and Alanis Morissette both seemed legit rock stars in the mid 90's, but  both suffered fairly cruel fates among the overall listening public (Don't shed a tear, I am pretty sure they are still doing o.k.).  This happened again to me in the early 2000's as I discovered and bought the first two CD's by The Killers. Both albums overall seemed a little tedious, but the band still crafted some engaging singles.  Were they the saviors of rock and roll?  Did they save rock and roll even for a little while? They seemed popular enough, but something told me they weren't the next Nirvana.

"When You Were Young," probably my favorite Killers' song, seems like a microcosm of the problem. It is a well produced, splendidly crafted song.  Its chorus is built around a line that any of us would give a piece of anatomy to have written: "he doesn't look a thing like Jesus/But he talks like a gentleman/like you imagined/when you were young." The opening instrumentation is a sonic wall, dropped to the minimal beat to allow Brandon Flowers' vocals to sound like an echoing call from somewhere across the desert.  The bridge is built upon the oft-used practice of letting the vocal resonate mostly in solo, with the guitars later soaring in to build the way back to the final verse. It's like humane fishing: catch, release, catch. It's a formula that a lot of rock and roll bands did well in the 70's and 80's, so The Killers are in fine company.

But there are some cringe-producing moments. Instead of sticking with the best line (Jesus/Gentleman), chorus two leads with the head-scratching: "we're burning down the highway skyline/On the back of a hurricane that started turning/when you were young." Really, what the hell does that really mean? Even if I wanted to accept the premise of riding the back of a storm system, everything about the song and the band seem to suggest that a tornado might have been the better weather metaphor than the hurricane (I might be influenced by the video).

The final line of the song seems a little too easy also: "He doesn't look a thing like Jesus/But more than you'll ever know," which is a pretty cocky line all things considered. Far be it for me to edit from the peanut gallery, but I think the ending would have been so much more intriguing if it was "He talked like a gentleman/more than you'll ever know." Or, even better "less than you'll ever know." I'm a sucker for ambiguity and either of those lines could have cast everything previously sang in doubt.

In the end, I forgive The Killers for the reach here, as that melody and that Jesus/Gentleman line worm their way deep into the recesses of my mind. It obviously must have done so for a lot of other people, as the song made it to #14 on the Top 40. Since then, The Killers have only cracked the Top 40 one more time.  Are they more evidence that rock and roll is dead, or are they just reminders that those of us who listen to rock and roll can only imagine rock as we knew it when we were young? Maybe more than we'll ever know.

"When You Were Young." The Killers. Sam's Town. Island. 2006. Link here.

Day 27: The Ramones "We're A Happy Family."

Day 29: Lucinda Williams "Soldier's Song."

See complete list here.