"Nobody ever had a dream 'round here but I don't really mind that it's starting to get to me." These are the lyrics Brand Flowers etched out to describe his upbringing in Las Vegas, Nevada, a popular tourist destination known for its one-night-stands of hedonism, chaos, and casinos.
But this one-night stand isn't staying in Vegas -- these words paint a picture all across small-town, rural America -- especially among Midwestern towns, where centers of civilization are few and far between.
Sam's Town was rated 2 out of 5 stars by the Rolling Stones in 2006. In 2009, readers' of Rolling Stone placed Sam's Town as the most underrated album of the decade. Over a decade later, Sam's Town has proven itself as a quintessential musical piece representing small-town, working-class America.
My connection with The Killers starts with a familiar tune: "Mr. Brightside." In early middle school, I delved into this anthem as well as several other famous hits: "Somebody Told Me," "When You Were Young," and "Spaceman." Each album represents an era for the band -- for example, Hot Fuss with its edgy, new-wave club aesthetic. I would spend hours on a school bus memorizing the lyrics to "Jenny Was A Friend of Mine." It wasn't until a year or so later that I began to understand, appreciate, and fall in love with Sam's Town.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, where the life is static and the people seem simple. I felt desolation creep its way into the rear-view mirror as I watched my reflection frown on the way back from Wednesday night church services. I convinced myself that I was an outsider, and no one could possibly understand me. I spent my fair amount of time wallowing in teenage angst that blossomed from an unstable home life in impoverished, working-class America.
Sam's Town simultaneously accepted and challenged this angst. The opening song celebrated the culture I existed within while encouraging the emergence of my individualist identity. "But I know that I can make it, as long as somebody takes me home, every now and then." I was determined to escape my circumstances and embrace change, but I always felt more at home among my friends living in trailers swimming in cat hair, than in my few friends' tidy castles in suburbia.
Both of these transitional tracks present the album as a collective, finished piece rather than a hodge-podge of rural-centric songs. They introduce theatricality while maintaining the townie tone comprised of motels, of Bud Lites, of bonfires, of Ferris wheel rides. There are inklings of sorrow dripping from Flowers' voice contrast to the friendly lyrics presented. We all save face differently -- the working-class smiles as they clock out from blue-collar jobs, despite never knowing if they'll have enough for tomorrow.
WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG/BONES
"You sit there in your heartache / Waiting on some beautiful boy to save you from your old ways." A loooot of lyrics in this album are devoted to the Messiah complex. The following lyrics touch on this -- "He doesn't look a thing like Jesus / But he talks like a gentleman / Like you imagined / When you were young."
Small-town romance is bittersweet -- many rural teenagers are mere products of the cycles of poverty. And this romance comes with the price-tag of accusations of "sexual immorality" -- most small-towns in the Midwest and South are extremely rooted in Abrahamic morality standards.
"Bones" discusses this abstinence-only lifestyle encouraged in Las Vegas by Latter-day Saints, but this sentiment is echoed in many rural areas with a Christian influence. Both "When You Were Young" and "Bones" tackle the small-town, high-school sweetheart romance and imbue it with the commentary regarding Christian-influenced views on love and sex.
READ MY MIND/BLING (CONFESSION OF A KING)
"I never really gave up on / Breakin' out of this two-star town."
Some of us never make it out. Some people enjoy the simple lifestyle afforded by rural America; others just never had the chance to leave.
Both "Read My Mind" and "Bling (Confession of a King)" talk about people at their lowest, and their efforts to strive to make something better of themselves. They're going to "make it out of the fire." These two songs are about people in misery, in despair, seeking to find hope in a place that seems hopeless to them or to simply escape.
As I grow older, I treasure these two songs more. I fucking hated growing up in the middle of nowhere for many different, although interconnected reasons. I was fortunate enough to obtain an opportunity to attend college and reside in one of the largest cities in Michigan. But when I returned to visit for Christmas, I realized how many of my older relatives did not have those opportunities. I realized how many of them would benefit from a place with better resources.
Better resources mean a better quality of life. In a recent study published by the University of Michigan, researchers found that the opioid crisis is growing much faster in rural areas versus urban areas in regards to opioid withdrawal symptoms in babies. "Uncle Jonny" discusses the systemic problem of drug addiction in working-class America: "When everybody else refrain / My uncle Jonny did cocaine / He's convinced himself right in his brain / That it helps to take away the pain."
This song is, unfortunately, more relevant than ever as the opiate epidemic is hitting rural America especially hard. My family is personally experienced with addiction, and many families in working-class America can echo this sentiment.
MY LIST/FOR REASONS UNKNOWN
"Let me wrap myself around you / You'll show me how I see it /And when you come back in from nowhere / Do you ever think of me?" These two songs are the aftermath of "Bones" and "When You Were Young" --in both of these songs, a relationship is going downhill.
In "My List", the narrator begs for forgiveness from their partner. Contrary, in "For Reasons Unknown", the narrator speaks about their withdrawal from their present life and partner. The experience of heartbreak is universal -- but the beautifully delicate ballad of "My List" aims to save the relationship, while respecting the viewpoints of the other person. "For Reasons Unknown" serves as quasi-response; "My heart, it don't beat / It don't beat the way it used to."
THIS RIVER IS WILD/WHY DO I KEEP COUNTING
I could write an entire article alone about these two tracks.
The river in "This River is Wild" often interpreted as life itself. The lyrics are painfully relatable; "Or should I get along with myself?/ I never did get along with everybody else." Another Christian reference sneaks in; "Now Adam's taking bombs and he's stuck on his mom / Because that bitch keeps trying to make him pray." "This River is Wild" pinpoints the ebbing flow of everyday life.
"Why Do I Keep Counting" is actually about Brandon Flowers' fear of flying, but many interpret it to fit their circumstances. The lyrics allude to existential ponderings about the future;
"Will I live to have some children?" and "If I pave my streets with good times / Will the mountains keep on giving?"
The lyric that hits me the most -- "And if all our days are numbered // Then why do I keep counting?" According to Vox, America's life expectancy has dropped to 78 years, partly due to the spike in suicide rates in the last ten years. The suicide rates increased everywhere except Nevada, which is still higher than the average rate.
Suicide is a growing epidemic in America. It has hit rural areas the hardest -- states like Oklahoma and Wyoming face increases of over 35 percent; Midwestern areas like Ohio and MIchigan follow behind with increases of over 20%.
The theories and speculation about the increase vary. But as someone who grew up in a rural area, I argue that the increase is due to a combination of factors; poverty, lack of economic resources, addiction, and untreated major mental health conditions, such as PTSD.
Sam's Town illustrates these issues without glamorizing or putting folx from rural areas on a pity pedestal. From "Uncle Jonny" to "Read My Mind," The Killers depict the bittersweet realities of small towns (or villages!) in America.
Sam's Town was rated terribly upon release by essentially every popular music. Despite the critics, fans loved it -- "When You Were Young" stayed for 20 weeks on the Billboard top 100. And it's aged well -- 10 years later, in 2016, NME reviewed Sam's Town once more and debunks many of those common criticisms. Sam's Town remains a magical, yet raw, underappreciated anthology of working-class America within the ever-expanding urban landscape.
I still find myself going back to Sam's Town, years later, even after moving into the much-larger city of Ann Arbor. When shit hits the fan. When I miss home. When the Canada-Goose-owning culture shock strikes again. And when I just want someone to understand what the first 18 years of my life looked like.