Review Summary: While documenting the shattered dreams of small town America, Brandon Flowers has finally created the Earth-mover that he's always lusted after – and ironically, it comes during a moment of quiet reflection.
During the early months of the pandemic, it became obvious to The Killers that their plans to promote 2020's Imploding the Mirage
would not come to fruition any time soon. Like many artists, they were forced to rethink where they were at – from immediate concerns such as touring and merchandise to existential ones like the course of the band and what they actually want to say with their music. For the typically decorated frontman Brandon Flowers, he saw it as an opportunity to go back to the drawing board. He used his hometown of Nephi, Utah, to create a snapshot of rural American life through fractured glimpses into an often caricatured demographic. He penned all of the lyrics for Pressure Machine
before bringing them to the band, and once the album was finished he incorporated tape recordings of the town's residents in what Flowers described as "such a last-minute decision." The result is a series of tracks that play out more like short stories, and when woven together they form a candid and depressing account of Nowhere, America which highlights its endearing traits as well as some of the destructive cycles that keep people trapped there. It's a noticeable leap in maturation for the band, and in particular Brandon Flowers – who has become better known for making outsized claims about the importance of his band than the actual quality of the music itself. Get ready to toss all of your preconceived notions about The Killers out the window though, because Pressure Machine
captures the essence of an entire American subculture during one of the most tumultuous times in the nation's history. It's a rare album – their Nebraska
, even – and for once, such a lofty statement is anything but hyperbole.
's artwork was photographed along a highway just outside of Nephi, but it also inadvertently depicts a line from 'Terrible Things' in which Flowers sings from the perspective of a gay teenager who is contemplating suicide: "in this barbed wire town of barbed wire dreams / I'm in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing." With the crosses symbolizing the religious bigotry that helped drive this young man to consider something so unthinkable for not "fitting the mold", it sort of feels like Pressure Machine
encapsulated into one depressing still frame. Across the album's runtime we see a lot of similar stories of pain and suffering; some are self-inflicted and others are not. There's the tale of a man who caught fifteen years in prison for possession of "them hillbilly heroin pills", a pair of seventeen year old high school sweethearts with a baby (and another on the way) who both died when they were hit by a Union Pacific train, a horse that was euthanized after breaking its leg during the locally-famed Ute Stampede, a dissatisfied husband who reignites "a flickering high school flame" because his marriage has stagnated, and a woman fleeing her physically abusive husband at sixty-five miles per hour who ends up falling in love with the cop who pulls her over. These are all based on real-life events from Flowers' childhood, and the narrative is laid out almost like a documentary. While there is no agenda or push to make the listener feel a certain way about Nephi and other small towns like it, it's still incredibly evocative – Pressure Machine
is an emotional and lyrical powerhouse that will inspire you to identify strongly with certain characters while despising others. It's a testament to The Killers' songwriting prowess and Brandon's lyrical maturation, sure, but none of it would be possible without the unprecedented jolt of inspiration stemming from that split-second decision to include the Nephi interviews, along with Flowers' incredible application of their stories to the concept at large.
The whole experience begins with 'West Hills', which might be the best song the Killers have ever recorded. The nearly six-minute track winds through pristinely strummed acoustic guitars, somber strings, and a swelling rock crescendo – you can practically envision yourself driving through the plains of the midwest as they curate this dark, rustic aura that will have you wondering who this band is and what they did with The Killers. The air feels still and heavy, like the calm before a storm or the weight of a town trying in vain to bury its secrets, an intuition confirmed when Brandon belts out, "they got me for possession of them hillbilly heroin pills / enough to kill the horses that run free in the west hills." It feels more earnest and passionate than all of Sam's Town
's most poignant junctures rolled into one; 'West Hills' is the real deal whereas that album trekked mostly through hamfisted references to red white and blue, the Fourth of July, and desert highways – plasticized Springsteenisms. 'West Hills' is just the tip of the iceberg, though – the beginning of Pressure Machine
's lengthy immersion into a real town full of actual people with life-altering issues. 'Quiet Town' quickly informs us that the opener was no red herring, with a dusty harmonica-driven melody that sees Flowers depict a town of hardworking, well-meaning folks who lean on Jesus while quietly hiding their rampant opioid crisis. As the song winds onward, it culminates in an elegant piano solo that nobody in their right mind saw coming, as Flowers finds himself reflecting on how fortunate he is to have not been "stained" by the hidden dangers of his hometown: "I will walk with the dead and the living where I used to live / and every time I see my parents in the prime of their lives – offering their son the kind of love he could never put down / Well, part of me is still that stainless kid...lucky." Fuck
, man – where have these verses been for the last seventeen years? As you gently weave your way through the heart of Pressure Machine
, you'll understand more and more what Flowers means by lines like that, but after two songs it's already abundantly clear that Pressure Machine
is going to be leagues beyond anything that The Killers have accomplished in their storied career.
From the heroin pills and opioids which cast a dark cloud over the album's opening tracks, Pressure Machine
then pivots to 'Terrible Thing' – a soul-crushing ballad that finds a young gay man on the verge of killing himself because his town and religion rejects him. As the song quietly floats atop a bed of echoed acoustic plucks, Flowers sings on behalf of a defeated narrator, "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." It's a devastating verse because despite not being able to choose one's sexual orientation, the society you're born into can still subsequently determine your perceived worth – or in some cases, if people think you deserve to even be alive. The Killers have never come close to approaching storytelling on this scale or magnitude before, and it's a moment that will knock you flat on your back. "The chute opens, bull draws blood, and the gift is accepted by God", Flowers sings, and the protagonist of this gut-wrenching story surrenders his soul to one of his earliest memories: "I close my eyes and think of the water / out at the Salt Creek when I was young." The acoustic picking suddenly cuts out, and the sound of the wind fills its void.
Elsewhere, Pressure Machine
continues to cover a wide range of heartache born out of rural decay. We're immersed in a crumbling marriage on 'In The Car Outside', where a husband laments a lost spark: "she's in the house with the baby crying on the bed / she's got this thing where she puts up the walls so high / it doesn't matter how much you love, it doesn't matter how hard you try / but I remember when she used to set the room on fire with her eyes." The man ultimately ends up cheating on his wife with a woman going through a divorce of her own: "I dropped a line to a flickering high school flame / And in a moment of weakness, I told her if she ever needed a helping hand, I would lend." Stories of boys and girls from the same town course throughout Pressure Machine
, painting the picture of these homogeneous societies where nobody ever leaves, folks settle for "good enough" or "getting by", and they always seem to end up unhappy. 'Terrible Thing' features possibly the best single line to drive this point home - "beer-drinking boy scouts living life like they ain't stuck on these quicksand streets with their girls in a sling" – although 'In Another Life' features another prime example when Flowers sings "Am I the man of your desire? Or just a guy from your hometown?" The story actually gets a slightly happier ending – if you can call it such – on 'Runaway Horses', where Phoebe Bridgers joins the band in beautiful vocal harmony to tell the story of someone who actually escaped his own rural hell, although the woman he's singing to willingly chose a different path: "you traded school for weddings rings and rent...small town girl, you put your dreams on ice, never thinking twice / there was a promise in our stride but we changed courses / headfirst into the unknown, like runaway horses." To call it a happy ending feels ironic, considering that one of the two characters essentially forfeits her own happiness for domestic responsibilities – not to mention that the song begins with an audio clip of someone recounting a local rodeo (the "Ute Stampede") where a horse snaps her leg and is forced to be euthanized – but Pressure Machine
is a pretty grim experience, so you have to make out the silver linings where you can.
Ultimately, Pressure Machine
's depiction of small, dying post-industrial American towns is centered around cyclical patterns. There's the day-in, day-out mundanity of the working class ("nothing good seems to ever come from all this work, no matter how hard I try") and of withering relationships ("We've had that treadmill now for months, I think she might've used it once / If I shut my mouth and keep the peace, she'll cook my eggs in bacon grease"), but on a broader scale we witness what actually
keeps them stuck in these ruts – these middle-of-nowhere lifelong coffins. Two central motifs that The Killers deliver brilliantly are religion and death. We already saw how religion was used to oppress those on the fringe of the town's accepted culture, driving them to the point of suicide, but we also are told – often from the residents' mouths themselves – how religion imprisons them too; only ironically, they don't realize it. On the swaying upbeat rocker 'Cody', a clip of a man talking about God is played back, and it sounds like he's merely repeating what he was raised to say – almost as if he barely believes it himself: "so higher powers, higher powers, higher powers...definitely believe in the higher powers, 'cause I'm just a little old human, you know?" Flowers then sings the repeated mantra "round and round it goes...we keep on waiting for the miracle" while seeming to echo the turmoil of people who spend their entire lives preparing for an afterlife that might not arrive, and that they perhaps never would have believed in if not for a strict, God-fearing childhood. On the stunning and pastoral closer, 'The Getting By', Flowers sings of simple, small-town folks who've never even tried to leave their home, but who think that it's fine because one day they will be rewarded with all of heaven's beauty: "still, I know some who've never seen the ocean, or set one foot on a velvet bed of sand / but they've got their treasure laying way up high, where there might be many mansions / but when I look up, all I see is sky." Then there's the train, which symbolizes death ("every two or three years, the train kills somebody...I think the train is a way to find your way out of this life") and is first referenced during the tape-recorded introduction to 'Quiet Town.' The application is quite literal on that song, where Flowers references the Union Pacific train incident that killed two of his classmates, although the idea of what the train represents transforms throughout the album. For instance, on 'In The Car Outside', it's used as a metaphor for the protagonist's dying marriage, or alternatively, the promise of death which compels him to chase real love before it's too late rather than settling for a life of feigned happiness and keeping up appearances ("It's like the part of me that's screaming not to jump gets lost in the sound of the train"). By the album's conclusion, it represents generational cycles repeating. As the album fades out to the sound of this train, an older gentleman tells Flowers about how his grandkids love to run down to the railroad tracks whenever they hear it coming. The fact that The Killers chose to make a man talking about his grandchildren coincide with the train's final horns as Pressure Machine
draws to its conclusion is an unlikely coincidence, and it masterfully ties together all of the record's themes.
It's almost unbelievable how much more profound, mature, and seamless all of the songwriting, lyrics, and symbolism is here compared to any prior Killers' outing. Clearly, the toll of the pandemic and the change in scenery to Brandon's hometown brought out the best in him, and in turn, the entire band. Pressure Machine
couldn't have been released at a more relevant time, either. Post-industrial small towns across America are reeling. Between the global job market shifting from industrial/blue-collar to technological/white-collar and the COVID-19 pandemic snuffing out whatever signs of life remained in small business, it's like the world has left many of these places behind. The Nephi interviews are but a microcosm of similar towns across the United States. It's a harrowing depiction of their plight during one of the most challenging economic times since the great depression. This is the sort of album that will be looked back at as a classic, if it doesn't qualify instantly, due to its artistic depth and contextual significance. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this absolute masterclass
in storytelling came from a man who couldn't seem to get out of his own way for the majority of his career. Even the most blindly optimistic fan couldn't have anticipated something of this
magnitude and genuine musical/historical significance coming from The Killers. While documenting the shattered dreams of small town Americana, Brandon Flowers has finally created the Earth-mover that he's always lusted after – and ironically, it comes during a moment of quiet reflection rather than bombastic stadium rock. This is easily The Killers' crowning achievement, and it is likely to go down as one of the most important albums of this era.