Artist: The Killers
Album: Pressure Machine
In Brief: We get a surprisingly subdued version of The Killers on album #7, which sees the band downshifting into sensitive folk/rock mode and away from their usual synth-heavy glammy indie rock. It suits the story Brandon Flowers is trying to tell, of the mundane struggles and headline-making tragedies of everyday people in the small Utah town he grew up in. Musically speaking, it’s not their most exciting record, but it’s got some powerful storytelling that often transcends the more simplistic style.
The Killers haven’t completely been themselves lately. I mean that statement quite literally – after five albums’ worth of aiming for as much world domination as a band can muster while still nominally being considered an “indie rock” outfit, they’ve hit a point in their career where a few band members have understandably needed a breather. Lead singer Brandon Flowers already has a few solo records under his belt – those didn’t seem to slow the band down much. But the nagging question of whether guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer wanted to continue with the band after taking a break from touring during the Wonderful Wonderful era kind of cast a shadow over the anticipation leading up to the band’s 2020 release, Imploding the Mirage. (Also casting a shadow over it: THE ENTIRETY OF 2020.) Ultimately Stoermer decided he was in while Keuning sat that record out, and the results were quite surprising for a band that found themselves without their talented guitarist. It was honestly one of their catchiest records since the early days when they first wowed me (and weirded me out a little) with their now-legendary debut Hot Fuss, and it had some pretty darn good guitar playing on it too, whether those duties were covered by Stoermer or by special guests. Keuning hadn’t permanently left the band, though – in fact, he wanted back in on the following record, Pressure Machine, which the band had begun working on before Mirage even saw its release date. Covid-19 wrecking their tour plans for Mirage and giving them some extra time to work with songs they’d previously discarded and Brandon Flowers’ off-the-beaten-path idea foe a concept album certainly had something to do with that. But the timing was still kind of funny for them to get their main axe man back, since Pressure Machine actually turned out to be the mellowest thing the band has done so far by a long shot. This time around it was Stoermer who sat out, more for pragmatic reasons due to the pandemic making it unfeasible for him to work with the band in person than because of any creative or personal differences, as far as I’m aware. I guess if a band has to be without their bassist and sometimes-guitarist, a record that isn’t really intended to be very riff or rhythm-heavy would be the least painful time to have that happen. This band has effectively functioned as a duo or trio for most of the last four years, and it’s to their credit that none of the music they’ve made during this period has sounded like they’re desperate to reassert their relevance, or floundering for ideas in the absence of key members.
I probably wouldn’t have guessed that in the lead-up to this album’s release, though. I was already skeptical about Mirage when the first few singles dropped back in late 2019 and early 2020; the record easily proved that my fears were unfounded, but to then hear that they already had another record in the works made me wonder if they were going to end up stretching themselves too thin. I actually think that if you’re gonna turn around two records in such rapid succession, it’s a good idea for them to either be a themed pair or for one to break from the formula completely. Imagine making fans wait five years or so for a new record and having it turn out to be a mostly mellow, downbeat character study of folks from small-town Utah, perhaps only a few hours up the road from the band’s usual stomping grounds in Las Vegas, Nevada, but culturally an entire world away from it. It would feel extremely anti-climactic, I think. But for Pressure Machine to come out when it did, as sort of a “bonus album” that the band was lucky enough to find the extra time to put together, certainly helps me to appreciate it more than I might have otherwise. What’s to complain about if The Killers sound a bit subdued here? They pitched a straight shot right down center field merely a year ago and I had a great time with that one. If I like anything from this new record, it’s icing on the cake, right?
Perhaps the most unusual break from the format on Pressure Machine isn’t the musical style itself, but the band’s decision to present these songs as though they were the soundtrack to an unseen documentary film. Interspersed throughout the songs, as a prelude or postlude to nearly every track, are interview clips with actual citizens of Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah, that help to establish the setting and give context to the surrounding songs. More often than not they add excruciatingly sad details to songs that you can already kind of tell are about some sort of deeply personal heartache; these may not be Brandon Flowers’ own stories, but it’s almost like he wanted to let voices be heard that he felt guilty about having ignored all those years when he was growing up, and after he left for Vegas to go become a Big Deal Rock StarTM. Now I’ll be honest – I’m generally not a fan of talking on records that are supposed to have music on them, at least not when it’s completely isolated from the instrumentation and it goes on for longer than a few seconds at a time. At its worst, this can be a cheap shortcut to evoking audience reactions that couldn’t be achieved in the actual song lyrics. But the truth is, sometimes the song really does need the context, and you just wouldn’t react to it the same way in a vacuum. But then the problem becomes, do you really need to hear the whole spiel every time you listen to the album? Once you’ve heard the explanation once or twice, you’d probably prefer to skip it and just go straight to the song, which can’t easily be done when the interview clip and the song itself are all contained on the same track. Don’t you worry – The Killers were nice enough to think of this, and also release an “abridged” version for impatient folks like me who just want to hurry up and get to the songs already. (And honestly, it only shaves off about five minutes of runtime – a little under 30 seconds per song, on average.) This actually helped Pressure Machine to earn some goodwill with me as I listened to it, first to the full version to get all the exposition, and then to the abridged version once I had a pretty good grasp on the backstory behind each song. 9 times out of 10, I’m probably gonna listen to the abridged version, personally, but I’ve heard people give a good defense for why they think either listening experience is superior, and I applaud the band’s decision to give us both at no extra charge (for streaming listeners, anyway – I’m not sure if the abridged version got a physical release or if that’s really necessary). If I want to refresh my memory on the story behind a song, I’ve got that handy, but if I want to stick the song on a playlist, I can do so without the talking interrupting the flow.
It’s also worth pointing out that this album is not completely bereft of up-tempo material that sounds like the work of a full band. The first two tracks in particular are surprisingly stunning in their arrangements, and there are some surprising up-tempo moments that pop up occasionally later in the album, even if it’s overall a much slower record than we’re used to from The Killers. Occasionally the synths even show up to add a bit of dreamy texture to the otherwise earthy brand of heartland rock that the band is going for year. Flowers has made no secret of his Bruce Springsteen fandom here, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he’d one day get the hankering to strip back the usual layered and hook-heavy approach, focus in on some smaller details rather than caterwauling his way across the big screen, and even go so far as to ditch modern-day computer technology for older analogue recording methods in the studio. This record often has the feel of something forgotten from the 80s or 90s that you might stumble across and suddenly get a flood of memories flooding back to you after not having heard it in ages. It’s fitting, considering its small-town setting where people see little point in putting up a façade of shiny newness, and the delicate mixture of cautionary tales and genuine empathy for these people’s ongoing hardships that he’s trying to articulate. Is this gonna be a lot of people’s favorite Killers record? Probably not. Is it going to be a record that sticks with them, though? I actually think there’s a very good chance it might, simply due to its uniqueness in the band’s discography. You might not remember a lot of the glammed-up filler trying its darndest to sound important on a middling record like or Battle Born, but you’ll probably remember that time The Killers set all the campiness aside and got startlingly real.
1. West Hills
After a few brief interview snippets to set the scene – two from women who seem to wholeheartedly believe that their hometown is a safe, wholesome place to grow up in and to raise a family, and one from a man who describes his brother being mistreated after moving there – we get a magnificent opener that I truly didn’t see coming. It’s easily one of the best things The Killers have ever done, yet musically it’s in an entirely different universe from everything they’ve ever done before. The basis of it is a mellow, looping piano melody that Flowers came up with, but layered on top of that we get a bit of mandolin and fiddle (the latter played by Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek), and eventually the drums and some distorted guitar come in to give it more of a tortured rock ballad sound. This one covers a lot of ground in the space of five minutes, at first waxing nostalgic about what it’s like to grow up in “Zion” with all of these devoutly religious people about you, but soon finding dissatisfaction in that insular culture and wanting to escape from it, ultimately finding that escape in “hillbilly heroin pills” and winding up getting arrested on a possession charge and thrown in jail. This leads the protagonist of the song (who I’m assuming is either someone Flowers knew growing up or heard about in one of the many interviews conducted for the album) to finally turn back to the questions of faith he had avoided earlier in life, wondering if there really is a God up there who will judge him for everything he’s done: “And if there really is a judgement/When He pulls my chart/He’ll reject my actions/But He will know my heart.” Throughout it all there’s a refrain that finds freedom in the image of a band of wild horses, running free in the hills west of town. I’m just in awe of how well this song establishes the desolate rural setting of the record, while also introducing us to this tight-knit community of deeply religious people struggling to contain a drug epidemic that threatens to rip their community apart. The last strains of harmonica as it fades out are a nice lead-in to the next song, which will more prominently feature the instrument.
2. Quiet Town
The snippet at the beginning of this song tells us something we’ll learn much more about in the opening verse – that every so often in this town, desperate folks at the end of their rope commit suicide by train, finding it to be an easier way out of problems they don’t know how to resolve. Given the bleak subject matter, it’s almost jarring that this song starts out with such an upbeat tone, with light, playful synthesizers and a brisk drum beat to keep things moving. Unlike The Killers’ typical use of synths to give their songs a heightened sense of Vegas-y glitz and glamour, here they come across as an artifact of childlike wonder, and it’s interesting how well that sound merges with the otherwise organic “heartland rock” sound, complete with a few soulful harmonica breaks. It’s a tricky exercise in juxtaposing sounds and ideas that might not seem to belong together. Flowers is still wrestling with a disturbing image from his youth, when he learned of a young couple that was hit by a passing train, their lives cut short in their prime despite them having a baby girl and planning to get married. The second verse delves into the opioid epidemic, giving us an idea of why this young couple might have found themselves in dire straits, despite being able to keep up the sort of appearance of being happy and having a bright future ahead that is often talked about in hushed tones when people die young and the gossip starts to spread quickly around such a small community. What’s interesting here is that Flowers never criticizes the greater community or accuses them of turning a blind eye, instead insisting that they’re “Good people who lean on Jesus, they’re quick to forgive.” It’s an interesting bit of world-building, because he approached the first song from the perspective of a non-religious outsider, but here he’s saying that despite the horror stories of drug abuse being more than this community knows how to handle, these aren’t a bunch of stone-cold hypocrites who simply turn their back when people are in trouble – they do try to pull together and help out those in need, even if it might be in misguided ways. There’s such an uneasy mix of cold, harsh reality and wide-eyed innocence here, coming from a songwriter who really seems like he wants to see the best in people on both sides of the equation.
3. Terrible Thing
Given how wonderfully layered the first two songs were, and how well they established that The Killers could do something very different genre-wise from what I would have expected, it’s a bit disappointing to suddenly jump to a sparse acoustic song that features nothing but Flowers’ voice, some very gentle guitar picking, and strains of harmonica here and there. Not that it isn’t a perfect stylistic fit for the album as a whole and for the tragic story it’s trying to tell – but I feel like this needs to show up a little later in the album to avoid derailing its pacing. Lyrically, it’s a huge tear-jerker, written from the point of view of a teenage boy who explains in various and detailed terms that he doesn’t fit in with the macho, football-playing, beer-drinking, go-shoot-stuff-on-the-weekends culture he’s expected to conform, implying without ever outright stating that he’s gay. Given the deeply religious setting, of course he understands that it’s tantamount to social suicide (and as far as he knows, eternal condemnation for his soul) to come right out and admit it, so the song very tenderly unpacks all the hidden trauma he experiences trying to keep his secret under wraps. It’s a story that I’ve heard numerous variants of over the years from gay friends who grew up in strict, conservative, religious households, and who have wrestled to reconcile their own faith with the sexuality over the years, often deciding to try to excise one part of them or the other. (Spoiler alert: Praying the gay away never works.) I really appreciate what Flowers is trying to communicate here – it’s a way of owning the straight privilege he took for granted growing up and expressing empathy toward those who suffered in silence right beside him the entire time. But given The Killers’ ability to address dire subjects with musically ambitious arrangements in the first two tracks, I can’t help but feel like this song deserved a little more. Honestly, it’s more of a Brandon Flowers solo track than a true Killers song, since producer Jonathan Rado played guitar here instead of Dave Keuning, and drummer Ronnie Vannucci is completely MIA.
The “talking head” at the beginning of this one is honestly a bit of a distraction. He waxes vaguely spiritual about “higher powers” and his belief in their existence, in a smooth-talking drawl that’s part Owen Wilson, part Matthew McConaughey, but it’s a complete 180 from the character explored in the song, who abhors religion and believes it to just be a scam to keep the masses sedated. This character “Cody” is established as a problem child from the get-go, having an unhealthy obsession with fire, becoming a bit of a bar brawler and a womanizer as he gets older, and all the while having his anti-social behavior written off by others as just him being “a different kind of kid”. Basically this is a guy with mental health issues who never gets the help he truly needs, with everyone’s answer apparently being that he just needs more Jesus. The miracle they’re hoping for never happens. Musically, this one starts off subdued and builds up slowly until it peaks at a fiery guitar solo in the bridge, which I’ll admit works better pacing-wise after “Terrible Thing” than I was expecting. Its chorus and its overall melody may be a tad on the drab side, but when that electric guitar gets unleashed, it’s gritty and weirdly anthemic all at once, and yet again it’s quite unlike anything I would have expected from The Killers at any other stage in their career.
I’m not sure why there’s a young woman being interviewed about her love of hunting at the beginning of this song. It’s definitely an important part of the culture in many rural areas of the country, Utah included, but nothing in the song references it in any way, except for maybe the opening verse’s reference to the fall colors painting the hillside, which I guess is when hunting season begins? (You can tell I’m not exactly an expert on this topic.) This song didn’t stand out much to me at first, but giving it a more careful listen, I’m surprised at its sudden change to a more hopeful tone, with the bright acoustic riff (which sounds like it might be a guitar and a mandolin in unison) that opens it up leading into a verse in which Flowers encourages a person who has been sleepwalking through life to open their eyes to the beauty around them as the seasons change from fall to winter to spring. Given the larger story arc of the record, it’s possible that this person is a drug addict, or perhaps it’s someone suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Either way, he seems to want to communicate that not all hope is lost and there’s still beauty to be found if you know where to look. Not the most profound statement that the album has to offer, but I do appreciate the colorful imagery and the hopeful folk/rock vibe.
6. Runaway Horses
The opening narration here, in which a woman recounts attending a rodeo during which a hopeful young rider’s dreams were crushed as its horse snapped its leg and she realized it would have to be put down, is pretty much the saddest thing ever. This time it’s thematically right on the money, since the song that follows is very much about a young girl learning to “put away childish things” as her youthful innocence is shattered by the cold, hard winds of real life. Like “Terrible Thing”, this is another incredibly delicate acoustic ballad – we get some strings and bit of slide guitar here, but it feels like none of these instruments are really making an effort to stand out, so it all just sort of blurs together in a vague, melancholy mush. Also blurring into the surroundings is a harmony vocal from Phoebe Bridgers, who I feel like was featured more because she’s a hot commodity in indie rock right now than because she had anything more than mildly pleasant backing vocals to offer. Given how much the instruments and vocals on her 2020 album Punisher seemed like they were struggling just to be audible, this isn’t too much of a surprise. (I know this is an unpopular opinion and I’m about to incur the wrath of any Phoebe Bridgers fans out there, but I just do not get the hype. Sorry not sorry.)
7. In the Car Outside
This one opens with a conversation between what sounds like two mechanics, who aren’t really talking about anything important, just going about their day-to-day tasks with no shortage of curses when they get frustrated. (It’s funny that one of them actually bothers to say “frickin'” before letting the real f-bombs fly.) Aside from this maybe being loosely related to cars, it gives no real indication of the song that follows, which startles me right away with peppy drum programming and a meaty bass line, more closely resembling The Killers of old than anything else on this album. It’s about the last thing I’d have expected at this point, honestly. Musically, it doesn’t quite go for broke like some of the band’s classic material does – Flowers’ usual yelpy vocals are still a bit more restrained and contemplative, which is fine with me because he does have a tendency to overdo it at times. This song’s protagonist is a married man who finds himself in a dilemma, with his wife back home struggling with a lot of stress and depression and as far as I can tell, shutting him out emotionally. All it takes is for an old flame to roll into town, who has conveniently gone through a recent divorce, and suddenly the temptation is too ripe to resist. He promises her, as he figures any good member of his community would, that he’ll be there for her if she needs anything, and before he knows it he’s sitting in the car outside of her house, trying to talk himself out of (or into) going inside. I noted a few times when I reviewing Imploding the Mirage that it was interesting to hear Flowers, who as far as I can tell is pretty sincere about his Mormon faith and his devotion to his family, explore these sorts of characters who are tempted to turn their backs on the vows they made to be faithful. He does so in a way that lets you walk a mile in their shoes instead of simply condemning them for not having enough faith or willpower. It’s also interesting how he compares the wife’s depression to the noise of a passing freight train, holding up traffic with no end in sight, while the strong urge he gets to visit his ex is likened to the desire to jump in front of a train. It’s like he’s admitting that would be tantamount to suicide for his marriage.
8. In Another Life
After a brief clip of a man articulating his understanding of how opioid addictions work and why it’s so hard to kick the habit, we get a sort of up-tempo pop/rock number that finds a man (possibly the same character the previous song was based on) questioning his decisions in life, wondering if things could have turned out better if he’d taken an alternate path. Maybe it’s the brush with a potential affair that prompted the question, or maybe it was simply that he saw a young couple in love walking down the street as he drove by, and memories came flooding back of what it was like back when he and his wife were that affectionate with each other. He wonders if he’s wasted the best years of his life working a thankless menial job, and he muses as he hears a sad country song on the jukebox that they write these kinds of songs about people like him. It’s not as potent of a mixture of sad lyrics and upbeat music as “Quiet Town” or “In the Car Outside”, mostly because there isn’t as strong of a vocal or instrumental hook here, but it’s not a bad choice in terms of pacing – this is a fairly mellow album that needs a few tracks like this to keep itself from being a total drag, even if this one is borderline filler.
9. Desperate Things
Here we get a sparse ballad with electric guitar as its main instrument rather than acoustic. For me it works out better than “Terrible Thing” or “Runaway Horses” because the guitar is used more for texture than for any sort of riff or hook – it has a repeating motif whose melody drives much of the song, but it’s very slow and mournful, and it gradually starts to become more unhinged, particularly in the third verse when bolts of energy seem to shoot out from the guitar like angry lightning. This song could be an isolated story or the conclusion of a trilogy, depending on how you look at it – once again it’s about a guy who is tempted to have an affair, but this time around the guy is a cop, and the woman is a victim of domestic abuse, whose bruises he discovers after pulling her over for a speeding violation. Out of a deep-seated need to protect her because of how much he hates “guys who hit for more than obvious reasons”, he starts hanging around her place of work and meeting up with her out west beyond the city limits just to check in and make sure she’s doing OK; unsurprisingly this turns into a tryst that goes farther than he knows it should have gone, when she unbuttons her blouse and he notes that he didn’t resist even though he was full well capable of doing so. The third verse is where things get truly scary, as he takes the law into his own hands, kidnaps the abusive husband under cover of night, and takes him out to a canyon where it’s implied that he murders and buries the guy. It’s weird how calm and rational Flowers sounds singing these lines, even as the guitar is sounding the alarm right up in his face. But that’s the entire point of the song – how otherwise sane, God-fearing, reasonable people can be driven to desperate, even despicable acts when cornered by stress and fear and protective instinct. The phrase “when people in love are desperate enough to abandon their dreams” pretty much sums up the entire album, because whether it’s drugs, or adultery, or murder, or suicide, nearly all of these songs sympathize with characters stuck between a rock and a hard place, on the verge of crossing moral lines they probably thought earlier in life they’d never even come close to crossing.
10. Pressure Machine
We’re getting to the point where I’m starting to wonder why they’re still bothering with the interview clips. This one is edited in such a way that the woman talking can’t even finish a couple sentences, her voice just sort of trailing off as she talks about where she met her husband and how they want to build a house in the area. The implication is that moving somewhere else was never really a consideration, and I guess the hesitation in her voice implies that there’s an unfulfilled wish there that she’s keeping under wraps because she knows it’s not realistic. Anyway, this track is a bit underwhelming, given the inherent expectations that come with the album being named after it. It’s a mid-tempo track with light, unobtrusive drums, very gentle acoustic guitar picking, and a slight bit of folk/country instrumentation such as the lap steel and Sara Watkins’ fiddle for flavor. It’s not nearly as engaging of an arrangement as the stunning opening tracks on this album, and at this point I kind of feel like the band is coasting toward the end of the record when they should be ratcheting up the tension even further. This song’s all about the pressure to perform that gets placed on working-class adults in that small-town setting, both due to the religious culture and the harsh economic conditions. It’s enough to make any sane person crack, yet moms and dads somehow manage to keep up appearances, to avoid crushing the dreams of their hopeful young children too early on. The implication here is that the cycle Flowers has observed will continue – idealistic kids will dream their dreams until one day an inciting incident shatters their rosy worldview, and they’ll be hit by the one-two punch of wanting to escape to a better world beyond the confines of the small town they once loved, and coming to the sobering realization that it isn’t feasible for most of them. These are incisive and interestingly detailed observations for this song to make, but it feels like it needs to accompany a performance that really nails all that stress and heartache to the wall, and forces the listener to face it and not turn away. Going this middle-of-the-road with it makes it too easy to tune out.
11. The Getting By
The last track is bookended by two more clips, the first one from a mother who takes a rosier view of small-town life, saying that her kids love it there, and her older son likes to disappear into the hills west of town and go hunting (we know at this point from the album’s various references to those western hills that this is hardly all that goes on there). Once again, it’s a deliberate contrast to the mood of the actual song, which is once again very sedated and sad, basically acoustic ballad sweetened a little bit by some strings, which ends the record on sort of a weary sigh. Maybe simply surviving day-to-day is all people can hope to do, Flowers basically admits here, and if they have some sort of hope of better days awaiting them ahead, be it in this life or the next, that’ll be enough for them. It’s important that a lot of the songs leading up to this pint have expressed an uneasy relationship with religion and rule-following; these final words seem to sow seeds of doubt as Flowers considers the reward that was promised by the leaders of his faith to his people when the Mormons first settles the land, noting that folks don’t seem very prosperous, and when he looks up to see the mansions they believe they’ll get in the afterlife, all he sees is sky. I see this less as him (or the character whose point of view he’s taking here) turning his back on his beliefs and more as him beginning to deconstruct and reconstruct them, finding strength in the work ethic and the strong value placed on community and helping out your fellow humans when they’re in need, but wondering if to some extent all the people sitting in those pews are being strung along with a false promise that will never come to fruition. It’s a disquieting thought to ponder, even if once again the music isn’t really doing much to drive home the sense of despair and helplessness he’s describing. As the song fades out and the faint sound of a train horn can be heard in the distance, we get one final clip, presumably from the same older man who was heard at the beginning of “Quiet Town”, once again discussing the passing train, this time noting that his grandkids love to run outside and watch it go by. The train has haunted this entire record – serving as a source of hope for some, and a quick mercy kill when the hopeless lives of others seem to have reached their pitiful ends. I have to say that The Killers have done a masterful job of weaving that train motif throughout the record (as well as the many references to horses and the West Hills), and it makes the album stronger on repeated listens, even if I still feel like it ends with a bit of a whimper.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
West Hills $2
Quiet Town $1.75
Terrible Thing $.75
Runaway Horses $.25
In the Car Outside $1
In Another Life $.75
Desperate Things $1
Pressure Machine $.50
The Getting By $.50
Brandon Flowers: Lead vocals, synthesizers, piano
Dave Keuning: Guitars, pedal steel
Ronnie Vannucci Jr: Drums, percussion, guitar
Mark Stoermer: Bass (did not participate on this album)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: