It wasn’t until one of my last college parties, 11 years after the song was originally released, that I heard it clearly for the first time. I leaned against the patio door with a red solo cup tipped towards my chest as this human smoke machine before me sputtered about how much he hated this one song about adultery. I could hear the crackly edges blaring out from the speakers inside: “Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just FINE!” (has any word ever been wailed more unconvincingly?).
Brandon Flowers is doing just fine, thank you.
The song was “Mr. Brightside” and it was released by the Killers way back in 2004 in the US. If you recall, 2004 was one of those years where super sad alternative rock music was all the rage, and it was super trendy to be heartbroken and falling apart. Green Day released “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which is one of the most depressing songs of all time (and it also threw the first f-bomb I had ever heard on the radio), Blink 182 put out “I Miss You” and “Down” on their last album before an indefinite hiatus, and Hoobastank, Evanescence, and Linkin Park were all relevant. This was a bygone era when even the nostalgic reverie of Nickelback was considered cool. The general vibe of the “alt” and punk rock on the radio was that it was okay to express your heartbreak and feelings of loss through a chart-topping song, especially with a pining voice over a piano or guitar line that screamed isolation and loneliness.
Green Day read between the lines.
“Mr. Brightside” fit right in with this crowd at the time; it was whirling with the anxiety of someone trying unsuccessfully to convince himself from the position of a sad wallflower that everything is going swimmingly as he watches his girlfriend cheat on him. Even when I was younger, the song had a captivating darkness to it that was kind of hard to pin down. The lyrics tested the limits of the listener: “Now they’re going to bed /And my stomach is sick / And it’s all in my head / But she’s touching his chest.” This is just one of the many lines that stood out to me as representative of this darkness. We expect the song to rhyme sick with another word just like it rhymes “bed” with “head,” but Flowers can’t even rhyme sick properly (with “dick”) because he’s that anxious over the scene that’s going down. He’s the narrator of the song and he can’t even let us all the way in.
Despite its 2004 punk/emo/alt vibe, “Mr. Brightside” has persisted in the public conscious for years. The song has ranked on more than a dozen “best of” lists including “best of the decade” from Absolute Radio, Complex, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, VH1, and XFM—all published years after 2004. This one song seems to have held on way past your typical pop half life of a few years. I’d argue that the first 2 minutes and 57 seconds of the song are darkly brilliant, but secret to this songs timelessness lies in that guitar bridge:
The bridge with all the feels.
The plodding guitar is chock full of drudging emotion with each guitar strum. Despite Brandon Flower’s last desperate, pleading “I never…” that follows, this part of the song has always remained incredibly moving and uplifting. This is what I realized at that party in college while I talked to some kid who couldn’t stop complaining about the song. This bridge is the key to the “bright” side of the entire song; it’s unique, timeless, and incredibly simple, but it owes its feel to the man it borrows from: Ludwig van Beethoven. The Killers’ bridge borrows from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, particularly the “Ode to Joy” choral moment in the final movement:
Borrowing from the Austrian mastermind.
The notes closely resemble those in the guitar line, and if you want you can sing Beethoven’s catchy German lyrics on top of the guitar solo in “Mr. Brightside” to see just how closely the songs match, one syllable per note (especially in the beginning and end of each phrase): Freu-de, schoe-ner Goe-tter-funk-en / Toch-ter aus E-ly-sium / Wir be-tre-ten fe-uer-trun-ken / Himm-li-sche, dein Hei-lig-tum.
This Beethovian bridge didn’t even get added to the song until its final version. Check out the demo to the song below, which is preset to the original bridge to the song (recorded in 2001, three years before its international release):
The Killers pre-Beethoven.
The plodding, Ode to Joy guitar line is nowhere to be found. It would seem that the Killers added it in later, before releasing the song, and it may be a big reason why we are still listening to the song today.