Joseph, Better You Than MeJoseph, Better You Than Me
by The Killers featuring Elton John and Neil Tennant

Writers - Flowers/John/Tennant
First released - 2008
Original album - (Red) Christmas EP (The Killers)
Producer - The Killers, Stuart Price
Subsequent albums - Don't Waste Your Wishes (The Killers)
Other releases - single (didn't chart)

The U.S. band The Killers have a tradition of releasing slightly off-kilter Christmas singles ("A Great Big Sled" in 2006 and "Don't Shoot Me, Santa" in 2007). The third in this series, released in 2008 with the proceeds going to the (RED)WIRE AIDS charity, is "Joseph, Better You Than Me." A slow-to-moderate track initially dominated by piano (though later it becomes more heavily "orchestrated"), it was co-written by Elton John—himself no stranger to holiday singles, his "Step into Christmas" from 1973 being one of the better examples of the genre, superfluous synth effects notwithstanding—and Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers, who had some lyrical assistance from none other than Neil Tennant. Neil contributed one verse:

When they've driven you so far
That you think you're gonna drop
Do you wish you were back there at the carpenter shop
With the plane and the lathe
The work never drove you mad
You're a maker, a creator
Not just somebody's dad

Neil also sings lead on the second half of that verse, starting with the line "With the plane and the lathe"; Elton sings the first half of the verse as well as quite a bit of the rest of the song. The recording was produced by Stuart Price.

This song is quite a bit more serious than the Killers' previous two Christmas singles. The lyrics directly address the carpenter Joseph, focusing on his uncertainty, confusion, and concern given the situation in which he finds himself. After all, his wife, Mary, is pregnant with the child they will name Jesus, and he knows he's not the father. He wrestles with his faith in God, hoping desperately to do the right things under the circumstances.

It soon becomes clear that the song's lyrical narrator identifies strongly with Joseph as he also wrestles with faith. He wonders if he, too, would be able to do the right thing under pressure. "Better you than me," the narrator says, again addressing Joseph, hoping that he himself will never be put to such a test. Could his own faith in God be as strong as Joseph's? "When I take the stand will he hold my hand? Will my faith stand still or run away?"

It's worth noting certain lyrical reverberations with Flowers's own Mormon faith. Joseph was the name not only of Jesus's "adoptive" father but also of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), Joseph Smith. And the reference to the desert being "a hell of a place to find heaven" echoes not only the biblical wanderings of the Hebrews during the Exodus and Jesus's temptation in the wilderness but also the great Mormon migration into the American West, where they finally settled and built their city at the edge of the desert near the Great Salt Lake.

It's much more profound message than one might have expected. I'm not aware of any other Killers track to date in which Flowers deals so immediately with matters of religious faith. In fact, it's not often you hear such a message in contemporary secular pop music in general.

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