Photo by Danny Clinch, courtesy of Universal Music
I‘ve always liked the Killers, but my engagement with them tends towards hit or miss. They often come off as a band who only know how to do big gestures, but yearn to communicate small, poetic truths. Their music is easy to respect, and to enjoy, but often seems like it’s in search of a home. Pressure Machine is a hit. An introspective concept album about Brandon Flowers’ formative years in the small town of Nephi, Utah, it’s an honest look at people working hard to get by, struggling with the opioid epidemic and the marginalization of people who don’t fit in. Springsteen’s Nebraska is an obvious touchstone, but Pressure Machine isn’t quite as bleak, not as lo-fi; even the most inward-looking Killers album still shimmers in places. These songs are a penumbra—the place where shadows and light meet.
“Desperate Things” is, at once, beautiful and harrowing. The way steel guitar jostles with industrial screeching suggests a disputed boundary—and how sorrow and joy are often border towns staring each other down.
“In the Car Outside” is the most “Killers” song on the album, an upbeat, rubber-bassed, synth-streaked song about a young couple brought to the edge of dissolution by hardship and lack of experience. Flowers sings it with panache, but also hopelessness disguised as bravado. It’s as if this is the husband’s daydream of hopping in the car and running away, tempered with the sober reality of what’s falling apart, the unshakeable thoughts like an image burned onto an ancient cathode ray tube TV.
We got a place with a fence and a little grass
I put this film on the windows, and it looks like chapel glass
But when she turns, it’s like the shadow of the cross don’t cast
No blessing over our lonely life
It’s like waiting for a train to pass, and I don’t know when it’ll pass
Album highlight “Terrible Thing” is written from the perspective of a closeted LGBTQ+ teen in the early 1990s. A small town is a hard enough place to grow up when you’re different. It can be lethal if you’re queer. The song’s somber, finger picked acoustics, fading synths, doleful harmonica, and analog tape hiss paint a vivid, affecting portrait of a kid contemplating suicide.
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
Hey momma, can’t you see your boy is wrapped up in the strangle silk
Of this cobweb town where culture is king?
I’m in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing
It would be incredibly easy for an album made by rock stars, about working class struggles, religious disillusionment, and the ins and outs of living in a small town, to come off as embarrassing and tone deaf. But Pressure Machine succeeds on the strength of its storytelling, and of Flowers’ real memories and evocative (and mostly elegant) prose. It is also bolstered by the sound bites of real Nephi residents discussing their lives that are strewn throughout the record. The album sounds like the genuine expression of thoughts that had been bouncing around in the band’s head for a while. Like a lot of us, the pandemic gave us not only a lot of time to think, but time to do something with what we thought about. The Killers can’t help but infuse everything they do with a little Vegas sparkle, but here, they give voice to everyone left languishing on the edge of town. | Mike Rengel