Album: Pressure Machine
Artist: The Killers
Released: August 13th, 2021
Highlights: West Hills, Quiet Town, Runaway Horses, In the Car Outside
For better and for worse, The Killers had never been able to shake off the bombastic sound that was so pivotal in propelling them to the eyes of the public in 2004 with “Hot Fuss”. On one hand, that characteristic played right into the hands of Brandon Flowers’ songwriting, which – with a knack for explosive choruses – was sure to keep on delivering at least two major hits per album. On the other hand, however, the fact The Killers seemingly only knew how to operate in full throttle meant that, outside a very dedicated fanbase, questions remained as to whether the band was anything more than a one-trick pony that was destined to be a classic case of a group that releases one debut of stunning quality only to then enter a brutal process of artistic stagnation with ever diminishing returns.
Rightfully, a follower of the band’s trajectory can argue that with the warmly received “Wonderful Wonderful”, their fifth release, Brandon and company were able to tone down the explosions that by then had become predictable to fall on tamer soundscapes made up of keyboards, synths, and guitar effects. But the truth is that, even with that record, The Killers could not get away from their natural lean towards grandiosity; they had merely swapped the cinematic heartland rock of Bruce Springsteen during the “Born to Run” and “Born in the U.S.A.” days for the equally bombastic arena-rock-for-the-masses frequently weaved by U2. In other words, they had simply exchanged one type of grandeur for another.
With their seventh album, though, it seems change has finally truly come for the band from Nevada; and, as it turns out, they end up gaining a lot from it. Although Brandon Flowers, like his bandmates, spent a good portion of his life in Las Vegas, an important part of his childhood unfolded in the state of Utah, within the small towns of Payson and Nephi. And it is the last one in particular (whose population sits at around 6,000 inhabitants) that he uses as a source of inspiration for “Pressure Machine”, in which he holds a magnifying glass to the elements that surround the people who live in such a small community at the deep heart of the United States and turns those individual pieces into serious, thoughtful, and subdued – especially for The Killers’ standards – tracks that come together to paint a larger and very vivid picture.
Since the moment Brandon Flowers burst into the scene as a songwriter, comparisons between his work and that of Bruce Springsteen have been common, and understandably so. After all, here were two artists that used bombastic heartland rock to turn the mundane struggles of average American characters – be them workers or anxious teenagers – into heroic tales. As such, when Brandon, with “Pressure Machine”, suddenly steps on the break to coin more intimate pieces about folks who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream, it is only natural for one to be reminded of Springsteen’s “Nebraska”, the dark, lo-fi, acoustic, and masterful 1982 release by Bruce. But, ultimately, “Pressure Machine” is not so daring: even though amateur-sounding recorded interviews with some inhabitants of Nephi precede nearly all the tracks, lending them a very real context, this is a finely produced album that – appropriately – sounds like it came from an important band and a major label.
Needless to say, the fact “Pressure Machine” lacks the sonic audacity of “Nebraska” does not detract from its worth. More importantly, this aesthetic disparity does not even make the comparison absurd, because what The Killers achieve here is by all means similar: like “Nebraska”, “Pressure Machine” is a realistic glimpse, frequently narrated in first-person, into the vast United States that exists away from the country’s worldwide-known and highly influential urban centers. Wearing the shoes of various characters, occasionally within the same song, Brandon touches on topics, people, and events that he, from personal experience, knows to be a part of a small and isolated community such as Nephi. There is the knowledge, sometimes sadly resigned and sometimes satisfied, that most people will never leave the town; there is the strong faith and the equally powerful pressure generated by religion; there is the beauty of living in the midst of natural splendor; there is the kid who causes trouble around the place; there is the young man who is driven to suicidal thoughts due to how his homosexuality is not accepted; there is addiction to opioids; there is the yearly rodeo; there are crimes and stories whose tales spread; and more.
Immersed in this mixture of light and darkness, musically, what makes “Pressure Machine” so special is that although the brand of heartland rock present here is quieter, the fingerprints of The Killers are still all over the tunes; that is, in this work, the band nails the elusive artistic achievement of changing one’s sound without abandoning the signature characteristics of one’s music. Yes, almost half of the songs on the album (“Terrible Thing”, “Runaway Horses”, “Desperate Things”, “Pressure Machine”, and “The Getting By”) are intimate guitar-and-voice cuts punctually embellished by harmonies or strings; and all of those are the types of tracks The Killers of old would never have gone for. Consequently, save for the voice of Brandon Flowers and a couple of melodic peculiarities, there is not much in them that can be connected to the group’s previous material. These folk moments are, however, nicely counterbalanced by a set of more muscular songs; and in these, some of the band’s bombast comes through.
Opener “West Hills” is cinematic from the start, encompassing characters as well as scenes that exist in Nephi and in the natural expanse that surrounds it, but it cooks quietly for more than two minutes before unleashing strings and guitars on the repetition of a chorus that gets progressively grander. “Quiet Town” is a straightforward mid-tempo rocker that could have come from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Cody” is tasteful country rock with a sweeping chorus. “Sleepwalker” and “In the Car Outside” follow a structure mastered by The Killers in many of their hits: pulsating verses led by keyboards that are catapulted to explosive choruses, the former supported by a more electronic arrangement and the latter by gorgeous ringing guitars. And “In Another Life” is every bit as anthemic as “When You Were Young”.
Accompanied by a strong set of calmer tracks and at times being themselves formed by a few segments of a more subdued nature, the climatic moments of these bombastic tunes have room to breathe, taking advantage of wider dynamics to be more effective than ever. And the fact “Pressure Machine” is filled with the most remarkable group of melodies Brandon Flowers has created since “Hot Fuss” certainly also helps in that regard. When those two qualities are considered alongside the thematic marvel displayed within the album, the result is that The Killers have pulled off a musical rarity: with their seventh work, they have not only broken a trend of artistic staleness that had been going on for a while, but they have also reached a career-high when their best days seemed to be far behind them. And best of all, they did so without completely abandoning the bombast that has always defined their music.