Album Review: The Killers – Pressure Machine

[Island; 2021]

Home can be comforting, familiar and the source of beautiful memories. Conversely, it can also be stifling, insidious and the setting where tragedy occurs. Suspending their pomp and theatricality to explore the American pastoral concept of small-town living comes Pressure Machine – the eighth studio album from The Killers. In a similar vein to the recent musical output of many, this new project feels the product of cabin fever introspection and spiky nostalgia that yields darker, moodier sounds. A downright country-influenced concept album about lead singer Brandon Flowers’ childhood town of Nephi, he refuses to paint the scenes with utopian hues. Rather, he explores the entrapment of living in a comfortable place, the decay of relationships, drug addiction and the refuge of denial when tragedy occurs. If this sounds nothing like The Killers’ previous output, you would be correct in your assumption. Even the stark, monochrome cover art – a barbed wire fence with blurred crosses in the background – suggests that there are more sinister things afoot.

It is apparent that The Killers are opting for a different style on Pressure Machine right from the opener “West Hills”. Containing banjo, highly-strung fiddle, intense guitar and moody piano creating something simultaneously epic and morose, while addressing drug addiction with rather dark imagery (“They got me for possession of them hillbilly heroin pills / Enough to kill the horses that run free in the west hills”), this isn’t quite the usual Killers fare.

Supporting all this are the presence of interludes, used throughout the album: snippets of interviews with town residents that help bolster the lyrical content. Second track, “Quiet Town”, is a tragedy wrapped in glittery paper. It starts with a man ominously saying: “Every two or three years the train kills somebody… Everybody knows about the train,” before elaborating on how suicide is the method people use to escape the trappings of a small town. This then segues into a countrified, synthy upbeat number – albeit one that’s rather muted by The Killers standards – detailing a real-life accident in which two people from Flowers’ school were hit by a train. It’s this type of juxtapostion between the sound and lyrics that encourages a more intent listen, because this album, for all its occasional gleaming, is filled with pathos.

Pressure Machine is less about an overall narrative and more about the vignette. Flowers switches to the perspectives of many different people to show an array of experiences surrounding this small locale. For example, “Terrible Thing” is a combination of melancholy guitar and harmonica that has Flowers narrating the struggle of being a gay teenager in a rural, religious setting (“Around here, we all take up our cross and hang on his Holy name / But the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game.”) With the narrator’s implied suicidal ideation, this becomes a lesson to those who use their faith as a justification for prejudice and the harm it causes. Later, “In The Car Outside” explores the alienation and decay of marriage – albeit with a rather uplifting sonic palette. It’s a frayed, decaying dynamic between husband and wife with the former seeming helpless as to how to help his partner through her psychological issues. The narrator also contemplates cheating with a “flickering high school flame” who has “two little boys in school / Just had a real bad divorce.” It’s not the most romantic portrait, but one that attends to the complications and strife that accompany being with someone for a long period of time.

Other times, the album explores the small town as the personal microcosm – the contained universe that people contemplate travelling beyond without any real action. “Cody” is a tale of someone who had a troubled childhood – including starting a fire – and grew up constantly yearning for an alteration to a repetitive cycle (“We keep on waiting for the miracle to come / Fall from the firmament and give us nice things / Round and round it goes / Where it stops, nobody knows…”). “Runaway Horses” features Phoebe Bridgers, but her talents are under-utilised and relegated to background vocals. Her voice does add a nice, wistful texture to Flowers’ deeper voice, however it wouldn’t have been amiss for her to have her own verse. The track however is still atmospheric and bittersweet, detailing the life path of a “small town girl” who is torn between loyalty to home and the great beyond (“You put your dreams on ice / Never thinking twice / Some you’ll surely forget and some that you never will.”) Anyone who has been raised in such places can relate to how you always picture the world beyond and the opportunities awaiting that are simply never pursued because there’s safety in the known. Similarly, “In Another Life” brings up the concept of small-town escape (“I spent my best years laying rubber on a factory line / I wonder what I would’ve been in another life.”)

The real highlight of Pressure Machine is the title track, which is amongst one of the most beautiful songs The Killers have ever recorded. Consisting of warm guitar, banjo and strings, the track is a bittersweet rumination on the passage of time. Flowers details a couple’s domestic haven, where their children have “Only sunshine on their lids / Jiminy Cricket and Power Wheels / And memories of Happy Meals.” Although this is an idyllic portrayal of suburban life, there is still an undercurrent of sadness as shown in the chorus where Flowers – employing a wonderfully emotional falsetto – asks: “Don’t you feel the time slipping away? / It ain’t funny at all / It’s gonna break your heart one day.” The song is sweeping and cinematic, profoundly affecting in its ability to remind listeners that we will all one day reach a point where we look back at life and realise many years have gone in a blink. There is a harsh element of cynicism (“Life’ll grow you a big red rose / Then rip it from beneath your nose”), but truthfully it signifies that the idyll is never what you quite expect – and perhaps not quite what you want.

Pressure Machine proves a successful concept album for The Killers, who give an unflinching portrayal of a small town and the bruised heart beneath its exterior. Its lyrics dismantle the concept of quiet places and expose the complicated dynamics and tragedies that skulk in dark corners like a recalcitrant spider. The primary weakness of this album, however, relates to its uniform sound, where tracks bleed into each other.

Regardless, this is a new evolution for the band who, this far into their career, have taken something of a left turn to create something that is lyrically and thematically captivating. It is a serious album – one devoid of the fun and catchiness that pervades their previous output – and as such, may need multiple listens to truly settle. Yet, there is a power that Pressure Machine possesses in its ability to make us aware that every individual we encounter lives in an entire world separate from anybody else. As these tracks demonstrate, we can know a snippet or two about somebody’s life, but, ultimately, never their entire story.