If there’s one thing alternative rock stars usually keep quiet about, it’s religion. Somehow theological devotion and indie credibility just don’t mix. You can’t imagine The Strokes converting to Islam, say, or Pete Doherty becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. So Brandon Flowers of The Killers is brave, or foolhardy, to admit to being a Mormon.
“Bob Dylan said it best – you can’t be Jewish and be cool,” he has said. “And you can’t be a Mormon and be cool! But I’m trying my best!” (Did Dylan really say that? Surely being Jewish and cool are eminently compatible: just look at Joey Ramone or Leonard Cohen. And bear in mind that Dylan’s reputation plunged to its lowest when he became a born-again Christian in the late 1970s. But I think it’s fair to agree that cool Mormons are a rarity.)
Flowers’ refusal to downplay his Mormonism is admirably honest, though perhaps it’s also a function of his vastly inflated sense of self-confidence. The Killers’ new album Sam’s Town, the follow-up to their 5m-selling debut Hot Fuss, is, he reckons, “the best album of the past 20 years”. Better than Nevermind, Appetite for Destruction or OK Computer in other words: an extraordinary claim to make. Isn’t hubris a sin for Mormons?
Actually Flowers, in spite of his bombastic singing style and the band’s fondness for overwrought music, comes across a less bumptious, more interesting figure on Sam’s Town. Sinfulness and religious doubt feature repeatedly in the songs. “They say the devil’s water/It ain’t so sweet/You don’t have to drink right now/But you can dip your feet/Every once in a little while,” he sings on one track. “Father/Help me get down/I can make it,” he implores on another. The question of whether it’s possible to reconcile religion and life in a rock and roll band is one of the album’s themes.
The problem with Sam’s Town is that its mood oscillates between eagerness to please and grandeur. On one hand, choruses home in on the listener like flattering supplicants, a sugar rush of pop pleasure. But the rest of the time the songs try too hard to ape U2’s epic scope, Flowers emoting lines such as “If I only knew the answer” over busy, pompous rock music. The combination is exhausting and confusing, so much so that by the end the singer is reduced to making the illogical observation that “if all our days are numbered/Then why do I keep counting?” Self-contradiction is the hallmark of Sam’s Town.
Beck’s new album The Information is an even more dramatic and unusual example of alt-rock religiosity. Overlong but lit up by frequent moments of brilliance, it is the most overt musical statement yet of the singer-songwriter’s mysterious attachment to Scientology, an affiliation he has been vague about in the past but now openly admits in interviews.
Unlike Beck’s great albums Odelay and Mellow Gold, The Information hides beneath its genre-hopping, playful-seeming music a humourless interior. Strange mystical imagery (“Looking for a ladder/In the stratosphere/So I can be happy/Let my problems melt away”) sits alongside apocalyptic visions: “I waited for a fire/To collide with the planet”. “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton” is a psychedelic 10-minute track whose ungainly name and spoken-word lyrics about “glowing multicoloured spaceships” seem to emanate from some strange corner of L. Ron Hubbard’s imagination. No doubt it makes perfect sense to Tom Cruise.
The singer’s reputation has taken a battering from the revelation of his connection with this weird religious sect. Having been the epitome of 1990s musical cool with clever, shape-shifting songs such as “Loser”, he now cuts an oddly forlorn, solitary figure: “Thought I saw a ghost/But it might have been me,” as he tells us on The Information. Yet the curious thing is how good the album is. The songs are funky, imaginative and deeply compelling. I have no idea what Beck is babbling on about when he sings “When the information comes/We’ll know what we’re made from” on the title track, and nor am I curious to find out. But there’s something alive in the music that keeps me listening on.