In Daniel Orozco’s brilliant short story Orientation, there’s a moment when – during an introduction to an office environment – the narrative slips into the startling:
“Anika Bloom sits in that cubicle. Last year, while reviewing quarterly reports in a meeting with Barry Hacker, Anika Bloom’s left palm began to bleed. She fell into a trance, stared into her hand,
and told Barry Hacker when and how his wife would die. We laughed it off. She was, after all, a new employee. But Barry Hacker’s wife is dead.”
I’ve kept the Killers at arms length until now, not entirely unimpressed by their wholesome keyboard flavoured rock, and annoyed at myself for endlessly humming the trite but mercilessly catchy ‘I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier’. Listening to When You Were Young, though, my ears picked up at the end of the first verse, as things went strange and the best line in recent pop history came out:
“He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman”
That line is the pop equivalent of Orozco’s story, flowing out of the song naturally but completely
out of place at the same time, for all the world like a threshold – inviting you into a skewed and
interesting world. On hearing it I was captured, as effectively as when in countless films a van
screeches up with its side door already sliding open to devour the caught-off guard protagonist to be bundled off to an uncertain fate (most shockingly used recently in Brian De Palma’s redacted – if
you’ve got the stomach for it).
All of which is to say that I’m hooked, despite the modest beginings of the song where
the rhythm section pounds along, grounded in a simple, determined, heart-quickening rutting beat, for all the world as if they were not the world’s quietest (in terms of behaviour) pop band but AC/DC kicking off a Friday night bar-room brawl. The warm fuzzy guitars and keyboards take off some of the edge, but only some, keeping it the right side of salvation.
If they’re tight, singer Brandon Flowers is loose, loose, so loose on this song – leaving
grand-canyon sized gaps for listeners to read between the lines in a tale that’s certainly about
temptation, may well be about sex (of a number of kinds) and profanity, and is coloured in with the
big broad American brushstrokes of devils and redemption, highways and hurricanes.
Like Orozco’s story, you feel like you’ve been given information, that you’re following the plot, but when you stop for a minute, it’s all too apparent that nothing is clear and the waters are muddied. Who, for example is the song being sung to? To the simplest of questions – is it adressed to a man or a woman? – there is no discernible answer (of course, if you watch Mtv you’ll be supplied with ready-made answers – but they’re imposed upon the song, rather than being integral).
It’s booming and anthemic, but in the best tradition of ‘big’ music it provides no answers, just a brilliant tune, great lines and ambiguities that are stadium-sized.