I first heard “Only The Young” from Brandon Flowers’ new solo album last week, and I was completely entranced. It had such a relaxing, Annie Lennox-ish rolling pop vibe and the video was beautiful and flowing. In the following days I have seen several conversations arise in some Mormon circles (including our new friends at This Week in Mormons) over whether or not the video contained “Mormon imagery.”
I bought the album on my way to class (despite being late) at a local CD shop near campus, and gave it a listen that afternoon. I was floored. The music was indeed good, but the most striking thing to me was the fact that the album is a long tale of redemptive explicit spirituality, and it was obviously intended to be interpreted so. Leave it to Mormons to overlook an entirely and intentionally spiritual album, straining over whether an image of Brandon Flowers in a pool of light has something to do with Joseph Smith.
Yet it’s a pretty well-accepted fact that, once you explain a joke, it completely destroys the chance that joke had at ever being funny. Likewise, I think that the spiritual tale contained in Flamingo really works best without extracting and exposing it, because I’m not sure it would stand as well on its own. However, being that I’m the creator and owner of the only website online devoted to promoting Mormons in the world of music, I guess that means I should at least share my thoughts. I’m happy to oblige. Rather than destructively over-analyzing his lyrics, I’ll just post excerpts (as well as I can hear them) and let you figure it out.
Flamingo is a loose tribute to Western Americana, a cautionary tale of the wonders and pitfalls of Las Vegas, and a curious insight into the spiritual battles happening there and in Brandon Flowers’ mind. It’s an ambitious conglomerate of ideas, for sure, and Flowers may not have quite reached his lofty goal, but he actually said more in trying than I really would have expected. I never did listen to The Killers too much (they really peaked when I was on my mission and I never got caught up), so I can’t provide a meaningful comparison to that, but Brandon Flowers has proven himself to be a far more spiritual being than I knowingly gave him credit for.
The album starts out with an unambiguous warning about Las Vegas that, if stripped down, could easily have been written by Bob Dylan forty years ago. “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sings Hosannas in one moment, and immediately calls to the harlots and sinners of the world in the next; it warns us all that in Vegas “the house will always win.” Throughout the album Flowers proves himself to be an able storyteller, speaking through the stories of stock characters, though it’s hard to tell where Flowers stops and his characters start. His stories seem to focus on temptations and the trials of this life, the war between good and evil, and a redemptive return to a traditional and very American spirituality.
The next song, “Only The Young” is almost worth the price of the album, I think. It’s a charismatic but preciously simple pop single that will stick with us for a long time. The video is soothing eye candy. It’s perfect. Flowers begins to introduce his theme of spiritual battle that will be elaborated on later (“Mother it’s cold here/Father thy will be done”).
Flamingo continues with two songs of love and heartbreak that could easily adapt themselves to several genres, “Hard Enough” and “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts,” the latter of which is a catchy up-tempo number that provides some nice energetic contrast in the first quarter of the album. Then we find “Playing With Fire,” which brings us back to quieter contemplation, with a chorus that is sung in a surprisingly vulnerable register. It includes a swelling choir chorus and an almost apologetic appeal to Deity in the face of a changing and challenging landscape:
Ten thousand demons hammer down with every footstep,
Ten thousand angels rush the wind against my back.
This church of mine may not be recognised by steeple,
But that doesn’t mean that I will walk without a God.
Rolling river of truth, can you spare me a sip?
The holy fountain of youth has been reduced to a drip.
But I’ve got this burning belief in salvation and love
This notion may be naive, but when push comes to shove
I will till this ground
This weighty piece is followed by a very happy synth tune called “Was It Something I Said?” which, despite an amusing storyline about a reckless engagement and following heartbreak, I can’t seem to get myself to like. I think it’s the buzzingly sugary arrangement. The following song is his appeal to redemption called “Magdalena,” which is the story of turning one’s life around towards forgiveness, using road journeys across the American West and Mexico as a brilliant and colorful metaphor:
Tell him that I’ve made the journey
And tell him that my heart is true
I’d like his blessing or forgiveness
Before the angels send it through
And I will know that I am clean now
And I will dance and the band will play
In the old cantina
Cups will runneth over the ancient clay
And if I should fall to temptation
When I return to evil throes
From Nogales to Magdalena
As a two time beggar I will go
Where I know I can be forgiven, the broken heart of Mexico
Finally we come to his first single called “Crossfire,” which you’ve no doubt heard somewhere in the last year. It’s the exact kind of catchy song Brandon Flowers has won so many hearts with, and he shows that no matter what a song is about, he’s not going to tell a story at the expense of writing a catchy pop song. But amazingly, the song unabashedly explains that the Earth is a battlefield between the forces of Heaven and Hell, and that we find true refuge with our loved ones:
And we’re caught up in the crossfire
Of Heaven and Hell
And were searching for shelter
Lay your body down, lay your body down, lay your body down
Tell the devil that he can go back from where he came
His fiery arrows drew their beating vein.
And when the hardest part is over we’ll be here
And our dreams will break the boundaries of our fears
Boundaries of our fears
Lay your body down, lay your body down, lay your body down
Next to mine
Then we come to my personal favorite song of the album, “On The Floor.” It’s a patient crescendo in which Brandon (or one of his alter-egos) finds himself praying for forgiveness in the dark, in a humble, rat-infested place, on his knees. It builds exactly when it should, and a downright chilling choir (it’s The Las Vegas Mass Choir according to the liner notes) finds itself bursting into his chorus. It’s a tricky but successful combination of Flowers’ penchant and flair for the dramatic with an actually touching intimate moment with the spiritual otherworld.
Finally, the album ends on what I think is a far less memorable note, “Swallow It,” though I think the album easily could have ended perfectly with “On The Floor.” This last track seems to be a half-serious string of bits of advice.
Brandon Flowers has been in an extremely successful pop band, and was never really seen as a poster child for traditional, conservative Mormonism, though he did always come across as sensitive to the spiritual needs of his Mormon listeners. However, I was pleasantly surprised with this album, if only because Flowers really shows that he has the balls to expose some of his more intimate spirituality to his audience (though he does interweave it into his usual lush synth-pop album formula). I know more than one Mormon musician that is terrified of religious themes due to the unfortunate Deseret Book influence/oppressive mediocrity/debacle in Mormonism. I am not going to sit here and tell you that it’s a life-changing album, or that it succeeds in everything it tries, but it is a brave album that adds color and mystery to the person of Brandon Flowers. I suspect that quite a bit of his life experiences lately, with the death of his mother and a third child on the way, may have caused an up-swell of introspection in Flowers’ music, and I think we can all benefit from it.
In summary, Flamingo isn’t the deepest spiritual album known to man, it’s not the best cautionary tale in music (I think Hole’s Celebrity Skin and Kevin Gilbert’s The Shaming of the True still claim silver and gold medals in that respect), and it’s not the best pop in the world. But as a combination of all three, I think it really treads a new path that is quite satisfying to me, a jaded rock snob. I really recommend this album to any Mormon who wishes to see how spirituality and pop can successfully be combined. Before I heard it, I thought Brandon Flowers was a kinda cool guy; now I want to give him a powerful fist bump and buy him dinner. Hear that Brandon? You’re welcome to a free Kentucky dinner whenever your want, on me.
Okay, fine, here’s a “Joseph Smith” frame from his video, since you keep bringing it up. SHEESH.
Are you Mormons happy now???
Here’s a link to check out Flamingo by Brandon Flowers on iTunes.