The Killers' 'Pressure Machine' Is Like 'Hillbilly Elegy' but Good
Published Aug 13, 2021The Killers, a band once synonymous with the post-punk revival in the early '00s, have gone full dad rock — more specifically, Bruce Springsteen-flavoured Americana dad rock. Many artists have attempted this Hail Mary before, but it's often desperate, underbaked and simply sleepy. In contrast, the Killers have found their true calling.
Since the mixed reception for vocalist Brandon Flowers' sophomore solo record, 2015's The Desired Effect, something seems to have woken up in these alt-rockers-turned-stadium giants. After 2017's danceable but tentative Wonderful Wonderful, Flowers and co. have landed on a one-two punch of records that easily rank among their best. With COVID coinciding with last year's Imploding the Mirage, a fist-pumping, rousingly written heartland rock gem, the Killers were left with hit after hit and nowhere to play. Instead, they retreated to Flowers' hometown of Nephi, Utah and wrote the follow-up to Mirage. Those tracks have finally arrived in the form of Pressure Machine, a slow, sometimes mournful and epic concept record about Nephi, and in many ways, every small town in much of America. It's easy to call Pressure Machine the Nebraska to last year's Born to Run, but that would be ignoring the powerful and heartbreaking connection the Killers nurture to the town inspiring this record.
Nearly every song begins with a short snippet of interviews with real citizens of Nephi — here we meet blue-collar workers, single mothers and people juggling everyday life with crushing opioid addictions. Pressure Machine does not shy away from the connections between these towns, frozen in time, and the drugs that have wounded them even further. It's not just the train that "kills someone every year or two," or the "hillbilly heroin pills"; it's this entire way of life dying on the vine. Flowers paints the heart-wrenching connection between mental illness and the decline of the middle class in "Terrible Thing" and "Desperate Things," and he treats every character, real or imagined, with a tenderness and love absent from so many hollow songs about towns like Nephi.
The Killers find in themselves a well of compassion here, and they announce as much on opener "West Hills," which is the closest thing to a masterpiece the band has recorded since the somehow-still-charting "Mr. Brightside." Harmonica, mandolin and country strings blend together with their singular blend of alt-rock and synth-pop to build an absolutely massive sound. Flowers is hesitant to discuss politics (and historically, his Mormon faith) directly, but he comes closer than ever here. But rather than pointing fingers, Flowers begs for apolitical empathy from anyone listening to his pleading stories about this "Quiet Town."
Machine falters, if only slightly, just after halfway into the record. "In The Car Outside" and "In Another Life" feel like afterthoughts from Mirage — they're excellent tunes, but the fist-pumping synths and classic Killers choruses are jarring when compared to the stark beauty of the rest of the album. If the album had dropped any singles before its release, surely these two would be the no-brainer candidates. It seems bad form to dance to a synth line that recalls "When You Were Young" when it's sandwiched between songs about workers being crushed by the titular Pressure Machine.
The experiment has succeeded wildly, and the Killers need to own their new form. They've aged into something more pensive, monumental and vital. The party is over, and we need these empathetic folktales much more than any of us need to dance. For that, we have Imploding the Mirage. And Hot Fuss, obviously. (Island)