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NEPHI — "I was born right here in Zion — God's own son," sings lead singer Brandon Flowers in The Killers' new acclaimed album, "Pressure Machine." From the first line of the first track of the album, Flowers brings his upbringing in a rural Latter-day Saint community into national conversation, depicting his faith in a way that he believes is largely underrepresented.
The rural West, including Flowers' native Utah, includes a grittier, dustier group of small town Latter-day Saints worshipping and living their faith in a grittier, dustier way, reminiscent of their pioneer ancestry, explained Christopher Jones, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University.
Flowers, who is a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the renowned rock band put the album together during quarantine and centered it around his experiences growing up in a largely Latter-day Saint community of Nephi, Utah. Each song offers up Steinbeckian vignettes of a town of hard-working, faithful people and a culture of pressure that can lead some to "desperate things," like opioid addiction, suicide, poverty, domestic violence and many other problems that plague rural communities.
"Themes like that aren't the sorts of themes that populate LDS history, but they are part of our recent history. At a community level we have grappled with those things, and either turn toward religion or away from it," Jones said. "We often talk about uniformity in the church, and how wherever you go, you're taught the same message from the same manual, and that's what I find most revealing here — it suggests that there is a broader differentiation between people's experiences (as members in the United States)."
Flowers describes the album as "full of songs that would have otherwise been too quiet and drowned out by the noise of typical Killers records," and giving a platform to quiet, unheard voices is the string that pulls together the whole album.
The photo on the cover features a wire fence in front of a blurry field of crosses outside a Baptist church in Flowers' childhood hometown, and one of the songs calls it "a barbed wire town of barbed wire dreams." This notion of religion and salvation as the background scenery of a barbed life is not an experience applicable to every Latter-day Saint, even in Utah, Jones said.
"Most research as a church focuses on the church as an institution," with general conference talks and doctrine, but then there's what historians refer to as "lived religion," meaning the way everyday members of that faith live, he said. In this case, it is "a rural community that is shaped by the church and its culture and the institution looms large, but the town is not necessarily all-encompassingly defined by it."
The album doesn't shy away from showing imperfection either, but it also offers redemption. In the song "Quiet Town," Flowers sandwiches the community-wide opioid problem between a description of a town full of tight-knit families that "still don't deadbolt their doors at night" and a description of imperfect, good, "salt of the land hard-working" people who are quick to forgive because they have also had to "lean on Jesus" who will lend you a hand if you're in trouble.
"There's this whole thing of dirt bikes and four-wheelers and beer and finding different ways to find your salvation other than in a church pew on Sunday," Flowers said in an interview that accompanies the album on Apple Music.
Flowers isn't necessarily endorsing that way of life; he's just trying to capture it in a way reminiscent of Tara Westover's memoir, "Educated," Jones explained. "And he's tapped into something quite profound, I think. Even devout Latter-day Saints in historically LDS communities turn to alternate paths to salvation or to attempting to cope."
Almost every track on the album has an introduction that features the voices and stories of people living in this community, and as a whole it becomes a kind of musical oral history or ballads in the style of John Mellencamp or older country and folk music.
"Mormonism is a storytelling religion. Mormons have told stories about themselves for themselves since the beginning," said historian and scholar of Mormonism Cristina Rosetti. "There's a deep desire to preserve its people by telling stories of average Saints." People of pioneer ancestry tell stories about "their people" and become amateur historians about their own ancestors. This type of generational history is often associated with old towns, mining towns and mountain towns like those in Appalachia, she explained.
The intros on the album in particular lend themselves to this kind of history, in that this form of storytelling is "allowing individuals to speak for themselves, share their own experiences, and to reflect on them and narrate them reveals something about the history of the church and LDS experience that is missed when we just talk about doctrine and Salt Lake City," Jones said.
The album has received and is still receiving a lot of attention on social media from millennial and Gen Z members or former members of the church who have expressed that the focus on raw lived religion, imperfection and the painful coexistence of a modern generation caught in an older culture.
One song in particular tells the story of a teenager in his bedroom contemplating suicide while in "cobweb town where culture is king," "beer-drinking Boy Scouts" are gathered at the rubber plant or proud mothers are fighting back tears as they watch their cowboy sons in the rodeo.
"There were kids I grew up with who I didn't know until years later that they were gay," Flowers told Rolling Stone magazine about the memory that inspired this song. "It must have just been so hard. I think the world is moving in a more positive direction and a more inclusive direction, but this was still in the '90s and people kept this stuff close."
Some people have been particularly responsive on Twitter, saying that the album connects people who might feel like they are too different or isolated to fit into an institutional faith.
"In order to understand The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its members, its doctrine, its teachings and its cultural influence, we can't only look to Salt Lake City. We can't only look to messages that are delivered over the pulpit on Sunday morning. We have to look to lived experiences," Jones said.