Conceived in the empty period of time when The Killers were meant to be on the road touring their critically acclaimed 2020 project, Imploding the Mirage, the Las Vegas alt-rock and new wave titans’ seventh studio album Pressure Machine is described by frontman Brandon Flowers as containing “songs that would have otherwise been too quiet and drowned out by the noise of typical Killers records.” Taking a step back from their arena-sized anthems and veering towards a more acoustic space, The Killers’ latest is a COVID-era experiment that really works, and a striking concept album that easily stands up with some of their classics. The album serves as an in-depth profile of Brandon Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah, a city of just over 5000 people directly in the centre of one of the USA’s most notorious flyover states. Interspersed with recordings of current residents of the town telling their stories, Flowers embodies various characters, both real and imagined, and recounts some of the stories he heard and saw in the town he lived in until the age of 16. Flowers’ vocal tone has always had the gravitas of a born storyteller, with a waver built in that makes him sound like he’s on the verge of breaking down at all times. The removal of some of the Killers’ reverb and blown-out sound lets us in on just how poignant and poetic of a lyricist he can be, placing a new spotlight on his words. Flowers approaches the album like a documentarian, and the truths he uncovers are deeply affecting.
The trademark Killers sound doesn’t go away completely – it’s used for a new, dramatic purpose. Many of Flowers’ tales are deeply heartbreaking, as he speaks on the opioid crisis, domestic abuse, reckonings with faith in a deeply evangelical town leading to tragic and rebellious behaviours, and a series of tracks dedicated to both sides of an ill-fated high-school marriage. The band’s more bombastic sound becomes associated with Flowers’ portrayals of the town’s more steadfast residents, focusing on putting in a hard day’s work in pursuit of the American dream and treating the tragedies as one-off accidents even as they pile up. Opening tracks “West Hills” and “Quiet Town” are some of the greatest examples of this juxtaposition. “West Hills” opens with overlapping residents describing what it’s like to live there, being cut off as soon as one starts to touch on something more sinister with another speaking pure positivity about the “nice, small community.” Over rolling drums and tenderly picked guitar passages, Flowers’ gravitas offsets a quieter, more contemplative backdrop at first, but it still ebbs and flows in the same way to earn the big moments, his narrator speaking on being born into God’s good graces in a peaceful town. By the time the muddy explosion of wailing guitars rolls in during the track’s back half to drown out Flowers’ words a little more, the narrator has begun to devolve into hysterics about questioning faith and being arrested for drug possession. If you got caught up in the dramatic swell, you’d easily miss it.
“Quiet Town” takes this idea to an even more disturbing place. Opening with a story of a man talking about youth suicides via train-track – a theme that reappears with horrifying consequences later – the song is about the real small-town tragedies that are brushed under the rug to keep up appearances as a pleasant, pious place. Over harmonicas, bright, 80s-inspired synths and driving, anthemic acoustic strumming, the track sounds like a joyous celebration of country life. Flowers’ tone is sardonically reverent and ecstatic as he sings with vivid detail about dead children lying in their Sunday best at the funeral. The track is essentially the Foster the People “Pumped Up Kicks” model perfected and taken to an even higher extreme.
The incredibly grim lyrical themes don’t let up as the album progresses, either. Flowers’ mixture of admiration for his humble beginnings and absolute contempt at its shady underbelly is incredibly compelling, but when we hear his accounts on tracks like “Terrible Thing,” it might make quite a few listeners never want to leave a big city again. Toning down the fanfare to a plaintive, simple acoustic loop, Flowers’ voice is at its most vulnerable as he embodies a gay teenager on the verge of suicide due to the town’s evangelical attitude. Flowers has mentioned that the track is based on his friends from growing up who waited until they were far, far away to come out, having to suppress their real selves constantly. As Flowers’ poetic approach paints a vivid picture of entrenched toxic masculinity, the harmonicas echo their mournful wail to complement his gorgeous falsetto. It’s difficult to stop the tears from flowing. “Cody” sees the residents of the town speaking in hushed tones about the “bad kid” who turned away from religion and started setting things on fire, accompanied by a driving work-song energy as they bind together, talk about eagles, and salute their strength in keeping good faith. With country-inspired guitar riffs, harmonized group vocals and a big, patriotic guitar solo, Flowers’ satire of the town knows no bounds. “Desperate Things” might be the most spine-chilling track on the whole project, a lengthy epic that sees Flowers embody the role of a policeman who rescues and falls in love with a victim of domestic abuse, eventually killing her husband in retaliation. With a psychedelic, echoing sound and Flowers singing in a desensitized, largely melody-free tone, the steady escalation into insanity only makes things all the more chilling, especially as the instrumental explodes into distortion and ghostly wails as the final deed is done.
The back half kicks off with “Runaway Horses,” introducing a three-song saga that seems to follow the same couple and the steady breaking apart of their relationship due to both of them seemingly just following the herd and getting married young because it’s what you’re supposed to do, rather than because of any truly heartfelt emotions. The wife is dutifully played by indie darling Phoebe Bridgers, who counteracts Flowers’ voice surprisingly well on their duet introducing the characters and their story, her pure, angelic tone offsetting his more unhinged style. The track is stunning in its simplicity, leaning into acoustic folk-song energy as the two mourn the lovers’ lost potential. “In The Car Outside” and “In Another Life” shift to the husband’s point of view, the former seeing him contemplating infidelity amidst their arguments, the track playing a skittering breakbeat behind the proceedings as the train rolls through town again and he resists the urge to jump. “In Another Life” shifts back to the acoustic strumming, a more reflective Flowers toning down his voice to imagine his life if different choices had been made, complaining about his job and upset in his realization that his wife chose him out of obligation rather than genuine passion.
The track “Sleepwalker” might be the only one that doesn’t connect in an extremely affecting way. Flowers’ natural warbling tone and appropriately flowery lyricism is still a delight to listen to, now that we can hear it a little better over some quieter backdrops, but his decision to make a track dedicated to the weather – well, the natural beauty of changing seasons in a rural town – of all things on an album with such harrowing subject material was a bizarre one. As the album winds down, grappling with religion continues to be its most prominent lyrical theme as it reappears on both of the final tracks. “Pressure Machine” unveils the true meaning of the album’s title, referring to the crushing pressure of being in God’s good graces all the time while simultaneously striving to succeed in a ruthless, capitalist society. Flowers poignantly addresses the anxiety-ridden, meaningless lives that can result while waxing nostalgic for a simpler childhood. The album closes with “The Getting By,” a final story of a religious doubter accepting his fate: “put another day in son, and hold on ‘til the getting’s good.” The last thing we hear is the beckoning call of the train horn.
Pressure Machine is exactly why we need to do everything we can to stop the album format from dying out – a concept album that clearly comes from personal experience that has provided years and years of writing material that Flowers has been pondering ever since. Newly topical in today’s divisive political climate, Pressure Machine is a triumph and stands as The Killers’ greatest songwriting effort yet.
Favourite Tracks: Runaway Horses, Terrible Thing, Quiet Town, Desperate Things, Cody
Least Favourite Track: Sleepwalker