Photo Credit: Danny Clinch
In late 2019, The Killers announced their follow-up to 2017’s Wonderful Wonderful was on its way. That album, Imploding The Mirage was The Killer’s best full-length work to date, a daring leap of sonic ambition that also happened to be hugely enjoyable. Brandon Flowers and company, however, had no way of knowing that by the time they were ready to release the album, the world’s population would be in the grips of a deadly pandemic and confined largely to their own homes. The maximalist, tour-ready sound of Imploding The Mirage felt incongruent to the realities of the moment.
On the contrary, the band’s newest release Pressure Machine sounds exactly like what you’d expect The Killer’s take on a quarantine album to sound like; it’s a somewhat somber affair, heavy on the Springsteen influence, and most importantly, it’s the first Killer’s LP that’s put the focus entirely on lyricism over catchy stadium rock arrangements: resulting in an album that is simultaneously The Killer’s strongest lyrically and weakest melodically.
Pressure Machine sees Brandon Flowers return to the small Utah town he lived in until 1997 and attempts to give voice to a deprived town whose fate mirrors that of countless other forgotten towns across America; the opioid crisis, suicide, and backward social attitudes towards sexuality are all given voice across this 51-minute album that attempts to carve out a space somewhere between two rock classics; Springsteen’s Nebraska and Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
Pressure Machine is filled with Springsteen-isms; the line in “Runaway Horses”, “small-town girl, Coca-Cola grin, honeysuckle skin” could so easily have been written by the boss himself. In these more referential moments, Pressure Machine can feel oddly synthetic for an album so obviously personal and, Flower’s dogged, if understandable, insistence on presenting the flawed people of his hometown in an unrelentingly favorable light can feel needlessly defensive and one-sided. On “Quiet Town”, Flowers sings of a town of “good people who lean on Jesus” and are “quick to forgive”, but by the next track “Terrible Thing” he depicts a gay teen brought to the brink of suicide because of his sexuality; the only explanation to be offered is that in this Utah town “culture is king” – clearly there’s a darker underbelly to this town that Flower’s is only beginning to scratch the surface of.
Pressure Machine’s best moments are its smallest and most introspective; where Flowers tries not to make blanket assertions about the entire town but zooms in on the individual realities of its characters. “Sleepwalker” works because it remains unmoored by its surroundings, painting an intimate picture of two lovebirds head over heels with each other (“When you wake up, I’ll be standing in the line // To kiss your eyes and wipe the tears from mine”). Similarly, the title track excels because of its deft and humorous utilization of small and intimate details (“We’ve had that treadmill now for months // I think she might’ve used it once”).
That’s not to say Pressure Machine’s more straightforward attempts at cultural and political messaging don’t always work; “Quiet Town” paints a quietly heartbreaking image of the ever-worsening opioid crisis (“When we first heard opioid stories, they were always in whispering tones // Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes”) – what was once seen as a problem small and isolated enough to sweep under the rug, is now an unavoidable tragedy that has impacted, in some way or another, nearly every member of the community. Elsewhere, however, there’s an ineptitude to Flowers’ messaging; his declaration that “ain’t nothing wrong with working-class” is almost comically too-on-the-nose, while his statement that “I’ve never had much patience for guys that hit” is eyebrow-raising in how unintendedly indefinite it is. In this sense though, Pressure Machine echoes the town around which it is based; it’s imperfect and messy, but ultimately loveable and charming.