Looks Nothing Like Jesus: The Killers’ Sam’s Town

Light percussion, then a speeding beat and swirling music, then tiny techno beats, followed by heavier drumming and a voice and lyric lines about the inertia of others and the singer’s sense of his own energy and destiny begin the song “Sam’s Town.” “Have you ever seen the light?” the singer asks. He makes reference to an American masquerade and to family and says, “I’m sick of all my judges.”

 

By Daniel Garrett

The Killers
Sam’s Town
Produced by Flood and Alan Moulder with the Killers
Island/Def Jam, 2006

American small-time life, its limitations, and the urges for liberation and rebellion that those limitations inevitably foster, are the themes of the songs on Sam’s Town, the album by the group of musicians who call themselves the Killers. Some people cannot imagine any life but the one they know and they fear being in disagreement with family and neighbors. They look on the faces of their parents and grandparents and see not only love and approval but principles and laws. To question or to rebel is to risk exile from the only world they know—the world that created them and makes sense of them. Who could they be without that known world?

Light percussion, then a speeding beat and swirling music, then tiny techno beats, followed by heavier drumming and a voice and lyric lines about the inertia of others and the singer’s sense of his own energy and destiny begin the song “Sam’s Town.” “Have you ever seen the light?” the singer asks. He makes reference to an American masquerade and to family and says, “I’m sick of all my judges.”

The song “Sam’s Town” and a brief welcome called “enterlude” are the prologue for the album by the Killers: Dave Keuning, Mark Stoermer, Brandon Flowers, and Ronnie Vannucci. The next song, “When You Were Young,” about salvation in love, time, youth, changed lives, movement, and a lover who talks like a gentleman but looks nothing like Jesus (can he be as transcendent as he seems?), is music that evokes something of Bruce Springsteen, whose explorations of American dreams and nightmares have become shared myths (though the Killers’ music does not have the aural heaviness of Springsteen). I like the singing—articulate, intense—in “Bling (Confessions of a King),” and the rocking music is loud but seems finely composed in texture and tone. “I move a little bit closer for reasons unknown,” the singer says in the song “For Reasons Unknown,” and later amends that his heart, eyes, and lips do not do what they used to do: he has mysteriously changed. He asks if someone can read his mind in the next song, and mentions the possibility of leaving town.

What does it mean to step into an unknown world? That question, which frightens some, excites others: we want the chance to find out. Individuality, risk, strangeness, temptation, and new knowledge become welcomed values. We are willing to risk danger, knowing we might be tested or changed but not really believing that any change is final or that we will be defeated or destroyed: and sometimes we are. Those who leave family and tribe are heroes and rebels, ingrates and defectives and never-do-wells, artists and thinkers and inventors, failures and whores and bums, geniuses and saints: the people who try the patience of others and make the world interesting, the people who create, change, test, and violate the laws of others.

“Uncle Jonny” features a man who uses cocaine for its pain-killing effect; and the song’s vocal reminds me of Lou Reed, but the music has a precision that is far from raw or spontaneous: this is a carefully constructed beauty. The pulsating rhythm reminds me of something just outside my consciousness.

“Don’t you want to feel my bones on your bones?” the singer asks, an erotic entreaty, a call to nature, in the song “Bones.” A slow, heavy beat, and a wounded voice, mark the love ballad “My List.” The spirit of Springsteen returns in “This River Is Wild”: I can hear both Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and “The River” in the song. (The Killers’ song seems an attempt at an epic, and borrows some of Springsteen’s sense of drama, but to be a fully achieved work it probably would have to transform completely its elements, with imagination, with vigor, so that that the listener no longer stands outside of it identifying its different parts.) The album ends with “Why Do I Keep Counting?” and also “exitude,” a farewell: “We hope that you enjoyed your stay.” I did.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Luther Vandross, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, TV on the Radio, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Ricky Martin, the Rolling Stones, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages ofThe Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” appeared on Offscreen.com, and featured Kathleen Battle, David Bowie, Common, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Yo Yo Ma, and Caetano Veloso. Daniel Garrett has also written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com

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