The last we saw of The Killers, they’d just come screeching through the desert, ready to ride the ramp and fly across the canyon into a second glorious decade. Their thrilling sixth album, ‘Imploding The Mirage’, was recorded pre-pandemic and released slap-bang in the middle of it last August; one hoped that the postponed tour set for last summer (now due next summer) would merely be a pump of the brakes. But none of the songs from that album have been performed live yet; the vehicle they roared in on now remains docile in the garage for another year.
‘Pressure Machine’, their second record in the space of the year, is a fascinating, character-driven record. Where their last record reached celestial heights, lockdown brought frontman Brandon Flowers back down to earth, prompting a period of reflection of his origins. The topics touched upon are specific to Flowers’ hometown in Nephi, Utah – where he spent his parts of childhood and teenage years – but will resonate with anyone whose hometowns have been hit designed with similar plights: economic hardship, dwindling opportunities, substance abuse and the personal squabbles that spread like wildfire through tight knit communities.
The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s sombre 1982 classic, ‘Nebraska’, are obvious; that album was released during their hero’s golden period, a contemplative exorcism between ‘The River’ and ‘Born In The USA’. The band are seemingly aware of this: they sourced the same recording gear used by The Boss to record ‘Pressure Machine’’s ‘Terrible Thing’ to channel that brooding energy. Yet Taylor Swift’s 2020 lockdown classic ‘Folklore’ is perhaps a more accurate reference point; both Swift and The Killers were about to embark on gigantic world tours at the start of 2019 and were soon forced to withdraw, recalibrate and pen their most introspective work yet, littered with knottiest lyrics and sketches of intriguing characters. It has served them both incredibly well.
There are flashes of ‘Sam’s Town’ monochrome palette and splinters from ‘Sawdust’ thicket, but the songs presented here are less likely to be belted out with strangers at a stadium tour, but to soundtrack a existential stare into the last whisky of the night. Slow-burning country-rock (‘West Hills’), acoustic ditties (‘Runaway Horses’) and desolate soundscapes are aided by Flowers’ sweet falsetto (‘Pressure Machine’).
The storytelling is what makes ‘Pressure Machine’ such a rewarding endeavour, however. The tales recounted are based on the people and anecdotes that loom large over Nephi, with snippets of interviews with residents – gathered for the band by the team American broadcaster National Public Radio – open each track. The locals discuss their faith, the politics of the town and local legends and history, their snatches of conversations an invitation to burrow into and investigate even further.
A great deal of affection is held by the band to Nephi’s locals and the accounts are told with respect and sympathy; this is the sound of a local nestling back in, not an outsider exploiting for their own gain. ‘Terrible Thing’ is particularly devastating, with Flowers recounting the story of a closeted, queer teenager plagued by suicidal thoughts, based on a friend during his childhood. He untangles the situation with sensitivity (“The cards that I was dealt / Will get you thrown out of the game”) and vivid metaphors (“Hey momma, can’t you see your boy is wrapped up in the strangle silk of this cobweb town). The song’s chorus is delivered divinely (“I close my eyes and think of the water / Out at the Salt Creek when I was young”), the subject’s and Flower’s own memories coalescing. It is absolutely beautiful.
The specificity is tempered well with broader strokes: ‘Quiet Town’ touches on small-town tragedy and the guilt associated with addiction; a crisis of faith rocks ‘The Getting By’; marital strife reaches breaking point on the album’s sharpest track, ‘In the Car Outside’. There’s a clunky line or two (“In this barbed wire town / Of barbed wire dreams”), but Flowers grasp of compelling prose shines; these memories have clearly been brewing inside of him ever since he left for Las Vegas to chase his dreams – he’s aware that few make it out like he did.
The past year has allowed many big names the times to complete long-held fantasies (Paul McCatney’s ‘III’) or push creative talents to their brink (Charli XCX’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’), now ‘Pressure Machine’ joins them; not only is it a project we we may never have heard otherwise, but a deeply satisfying entry into their catalogue. It’s a homecoming of discreet intentions, not the pompous heroes return they’re likely used to – the modesty and subtlety suits them.
Release date: August 13
Record label: EMI