Song Analysis #57: The Killers – When You Were Young

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!

4 thoughts on “Song Analysis #57: The Killers – When You Were Young

  1. I think you are onto something here. Mormon young women are encourage to marry Return Missionaries of the Mormon faith.

    Mormon temples are always on a hilltop. And “eternal” marriages are performed in these temples.

    For me the first verse is about falling in love with someone who did not necessarily be of total good standing with the church.

      1. A small error, the whole “Mormon’s don’t drink caffeinated soda” is a weird myth within Latter Day Saint culture that has been hard to shake even after church leaders (our Apostles, say comparable to the Roman Papacy in terms of authority and recognition in the church) got up in a global meeting to the pulpit and said “we love our diet sodas.” There is a long story that involves the church’s university in Provo, and an offhand comment a church leader made in the 1950’s that explains how the caffeinated soda thing happened, and growing up as a kid there was a constant tug of war between people saying “caffeinated soda is NOT a sin in the church” and people saying “no it is!” until it literally took a press release from the church to outline “yes, you can drink caffeine; and yes you always could if you wanted to.” All the better, I love my Mountain Dew but could care less about coffee or smoking myself, but I need my Mountain Dew!

        But that experience in general (even if indirectly) is important to understanding the type of background Brandon Flowers comes from. People always talk about The Killers being a Las Vegas band, and while that is true Brandon wears his upbringing in Nephi, Utah on his sleeve (a city which in Utah tradition is named after a heroic figure from The Book of Mormon). It is the type of small town off an interstate in the middle of nowhere marked with extreme religious fervor and youth indifference which is the very key to how Brandon probably connected to the whole Springsteen-esque “Heartland Rock” in the first place. Nephi is nowhere, but in-between Salt Lake and Las Vegas along I-15, an almost metaphorical middle point between Sin City and Saint City and very much explains a lot of Brandon’s ethos. He fell in love with The Kinks, New Order and The Cars via visiting his brother in SLC on the weekends and listening to records with him as a way to escape being bored in Nephi.

        I think its wrong to say that Brandon doesn’t write a lot of music about religion either, I would dare say almost all of his songs are religious in some nature but he normally writes it in a way that is… subtle. Nobody would play a Killers song on a Soft Sunday Sounds radio format, but the religion is baked in. Again looking at Sam’s Town and the track “This River is Wild” which is both Brandon reminiscing on Nephi while also bemoaning how restrictive growing up in Utah felt. But in the same album that is contrasted with a plea to God in the song “Why Do I Keep Counting” which touches on Brandon’s fear of flying, and how a few near plane accident’s early in The Killer’s career quite literally made Brandon “emergency pray” to God asking to survive the plane troubles and to not die there but live long enough to have children. Even Hot Fuss before tapped into religious sentiment with “All These Things I Have Done.”

        I think the religious messages become more clear after 2012’s Battle Born for two reasons. One, that was the first album The Killers wrote after Brandon decided to stop smoking and drinking and fully return to activity in The Church. Second, you can start to see that Brandon was getting aware of his wife’s PTSD from issues in her childhood (which kind of supports the theory that When You Were Young’s first verse is about a LDS guy falling for a girl who isn’t that active in church either…) Brandon’s lyrics are very self autobiographical, you can tell Mr. Brightside and Miss Atomic Bomb are about a girl who dumped him in Vegas, and you can see more in his later work songs about his wife Tara and their relationship while also confronting her PTSD issues. A few of the notable songs in the spiritual vein from The Killers:

        Battle Born (2012):
        *Be Still: a song written by Flowers for his son, both an expression that his son would grow to be a stronger and better man than Flowers along with a possible reference to LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinkley’s “Be Attitudes” speach.
        *Heart of a Girl: Flowers addressing his wife’s PTSD issues and how he tries to comfort her

        Wonderful Wonderful (2017)
        *The Man: an ironic reflection on Brandon’s youth (especially the Hot Fuss and Sam’s Town era) noting how his cocky masculinity was ultimately self damaging and how he had to learn to be a more humble person.
        *Rut: a song about Tara’s PTSD and depression, describing the mental burden those issues carry.
        *Tyson vs. Douglas: a metaphor using the famous boxing match were Brandon expresses his wish to remain spiritual strong for his children and not fall back to his old habits.
        *The Calling: It has Woody Harrelson reading the New Testament then dropping a sick bass beat under it at the start, so the religious undertones are not subtle at all. But hey, now I want to hear Woody Harrelson read the rest of the Bible set to bass lines so…

        *Land of the Free (2020 edition): Ends in a prayer to God asking that the hearts of people may be changed to avoid repeating the tragedy of the 2020 George Floyd killing again.

        Imploding the Mirage (2020):
        *My Own Soul’s Warning: Tying into the belief about God being able to guide people via divine inspiration from the Holy Ghost, and a personal relationship to deity as such.
        *Blowback: another song about Tara, and her youth before and as she met Brandon; showing how she was struggling at a young age and facing “blowback” in her life.
        *Lightning Fields: written about Brandon’s widower father, tying back into the LDS belief about eternal marriage by describing Brandon’s father having a dream of someday being reunited with his wife in heaven.
        *Fire in Bone: This is literally the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament.
        *Running Towards a Place: Sort of a response to Lightning Fields, with now Brandon expressing his desire to someday also be with Tara in the afterlife with them becoming “one” in the next life.
        *My God: Describing how Tara’s faith has helped her cope with her PTSD.

        Probably the thing again I appreciate, all the messaging is there but The Killers never let it say get as blunt as many other “Christian/Religious Rock” artists do. Its very subtle, and if somebody is familiar with the message its clear; but its never obnoxiously preachy in the same trap that Christian Rock tends to fall towards. This is still very clearly pop-alt rock, but by hiding the spirituality under the glossy rock face, Brandon has managed to express a lot about his faith, his struggles with and embracing of it, and how it affects his wife and children; while also writing some really catchy pop rock.

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