West Hills III- The Jack Mormon Prayer
To Neil Longo, a borderlander, true friend, explorer, thinker, and believer. I’ll always miss you.
Within the church, The Killers’ Mormon influence is no secret. Lyrics infused with Mormon cultural attitudes, theology, and a deep reverence for the American West are spread widely throughout the band’s work: from the Heavenly-Parents-inspired album art of Imploding the Mirage to the steady, oh-so-Mormon refrain of "Be Still" ("rise up like the sun, and labor 'til the work is done"). Frontman Brandon Flowers’ son is named Ammon, and "All These Things That I Have Done" is about Flowers not serving a mission. During my own mission, I watched his "I’m a Mormon" video on repeat (not least because I was able to listen to a performance of his song "Crossfire," especially appealing as we could only listen to conservatively-arranged hymns from the hymnbook).
I graduated school in the UK, where I learned to love the particular British ecstasy of being in a room full of drunk people belting the angsty, manic, certified banger that is "Mr. Brightside" with complete sincerity. The song is evergreen and has stayed on the charts year after year. Many Brits joke that it’s their unofficial national anthem. If I had to guess, I’d venture that there’s something in the British national character that relates strongly to the song's themes of betrayed optimism and melancholy yearning. Then again, maybe it’s because the lyrics are really easy to yell.
The Killers’ latest album Pressure Machine is a sharp departure from the band’s stadium anthems and reverential Springsteen style. Pressure Machine instead sees the band with acoustic guitars and a folkier approach. The album draws deeply from Flowers’ experiences growing up in the small town of Nephi, Utah and focuses on the themes of belonging, community, drugs, economic stagnation, and the drudgery of work.
The opening track "West Hills" begins with spoken-word interviews with Nephi residents extolling how tight-knit their small community is, while introducing the fact that the community is not always accepting “if you don’t fit their mold”. What then follows is a slow, mournful, and soaring country ballad about freedom, bondage, the search for belonging, and redemption. The album version is haunting, hopeful, and beautiful. However, I’d like to focus on a version of the song that appears on the Deluxe version of the Album: "West Hills III."
The track’s melody is instantly recognizable as that of the iconic, otherworldly, and grand Mormon hymn "If You Could Hie to Kolob." Unlike the album version, the track is mostly a cappella, sung in something very close to a standard Soprano-Alto-Tenor-Bass arrangement. The choice of melody and arrangement simultaneously brings a sense of largeness and intimacy, eternity and temporality: this is a song that you could hear on any Sunday as the musical number, but also reaches into the eternities. The track begins with the narrator situating himself firmly in the Nephi soil and within the church. “I was born right here in Zion” as “God’s own son”, but then notes that “His Holy Ghost stories and bloodshed never did scare me none”. Instead of attending church with the rest of the community, he plays the Jack Mormon, sluffs, and instead finds meaning and freedom in the west hills, “where the light can place its hands on [his] head”. In nature, the narrator experiences God and freedom in an intimate and bodily way that he does not feel in his community. The narrator, therefore, is a borderlander.
The second verse tells the story of the beginning of the narrator's fall. He is seeing a woman with two grown children and one at home. The narrator seems skeptical of the one at home, but experiences the unexpected grace of loving someone he didn’t expect to love, “loving him like he was mine”. Here, however, the narrator starts the cycle of self-destruction. He sings “Some nights we drive up the mouth of the canyon on hillbilly heroin pills. We get out and watch the sunset over the west hills.” Inevitably, the consequences of the narrator’s actions catch up with him after a night raid by the police leads to his arrest for the possession of opiates in the quantities to “kill the horses that run free in the west hills”. While he thinks that drugs will aid him in his search for freedom, joy, and meaning, they destroy what he holds dear.
The female voices drop out and we are left with the male voices, highlighting the narrator’s fear and realization of the gravity of his actions as he grapples with his future locked up in prison. He acknowledges “If this life is meant for proving, I could use more years to live” and that he’s not willing to live the next 15 years in jail, seemingly referencing suicide or a half-life in jail. But then, like Alma in the depths of his despair, he, a Jack Mormon, catches onto what he remembers he has been taught about God:
And if there really is a judgment When the Savior pulls my chart He will reject my actions But He will know my heart And He'll prepare a place for me Where happiness instills Where the light can place its hands on my head Free in the west hills
The narrator reminds himself that even in his fallen condition, even though he ruined his life and hurt those around him, he is worthy of some degree of grace and mercy. Despite the dire circumstances, he clings to the belief that God will not utterly condemn him and, in some way, will offer restitution, redemption, and mercy. The women’s voices come back on the line “He will reject my actions, but He will know my heart,” emphasizing the hope and conviction of everything being okay in the end. This is the Jack Mormon Prayer. Sung to the tune of a song whose original lyrics promise no end to love, truth, being, creation, might, wisdom, and glory, "West Hills III" offers hope not just to the narrator, but to all those who think they have fallen too far for God to redeem.
The Jack Mormon prayer reaffirms that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” While nobody is right on everything, the borderlanders – the ones on the fringe – have more to teach us than we think. As the dear, late Neil Longo has written “Universal Salvation should allow us not to fear, and to approach those within our reach (especially fellow Mormons) with stunning, radical openness, achieving a kind of Sobornost [an Eastern Orthodox concept of spiritual harmony based on freedom and unity in love] as our fear and angst is washed away by hope and love. Mormonism, phenomenologically, should be the experience of being-cast-outward and being-diving-inward, not being-unto-angst or being-unto-defensiveness.”
It is that openness, hope, and love that "West Hills III" strives for. May Mormons everywhere embrace the message of "West Hills III" with the same jubilant, earnest, and chaotic energy and abandon that every group of sweaty, intoxicated Brits bring to "Mr. Brightside."
Below is a beautiful performance of "Mr. Brightside" in an Irish bar to honor a friend who had died.
About the Author
Sam Dearden believes in the power of place, history, and bodily experience. He's lived in a lot of different places, but will always love the mountain beauty of the Wasatch Front and the peculiarity of its culture. His favorite Utah sites include Iosepa, Topaz, and the Alpine Loop. Jack-of-all-trades and master-of none, he is fascinated by religious architecture, diplomacy, and music. He currently lives in Washington DC with his wife and baby son. He works for the US State Department, doing digital connectivity in developing countries.