Armed with gargantuan hooks and the egos to match, the Killers were one of the most bombastic rock bands to emerge out of the minor rock boom of the early-to-mid aughts. Before their sophomore effort, Sam’s Town, was even released, frontman Brandon Flowers infamously declared that it would be one of the best albums in 20 years. While it may not have reached that lofty goal, Sam’s Town is, alongside 2012’s under-appreciated Battle Born, one of the band’s most fully realized visions of American excess.
The isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic reportedly brought the Killers’s promotional tour for their sixth album, Imploding the Mirage, to a “grinding halt,” forcing Flowers into a more insular creative process. The result, Pressure Machine, stands as the band’s most sonically restrained effort to date. The hooks are still there, and songs like “Quiet Town” and “In the Car Outside” nod to the group’s early synth-driven sound, but the album’s 11 songs take their sweet time unfurling, luxuriating in subtle details like the swooning strings of the title track.
Pressure Machine pays tribute to Flowers’s childhood hometown of Nephi, Utah, a tiny rural hamlet that he describes on one song as a “cobweb town where culture is king.” Named after a central figure in the Book of Mormon, Nephi is a distinctly American city filled with rubber factories, “hillbilly heroin pills,” and “good people [who] still don’t deadbolt their doors at night.” And songs like “In Another Life” paint a vivid, if overly familiar, portrait of small-town ennui centered around the kind of people who never got out.
In many ways, Pressure Machine feels like the musical equivalent of CNN earnestly interviewing Trump supporters at a local diner, but Flowers has obvious affection and empathy for the real and imagined characters here. The album’s closing track, “The Getting By,” poignantly describes people who’ve never seen the ocean, who dubiously cling to the belief that their best days lie ahead: “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,” Flowers muses.
Flowers is an inherently optimistic songwriter, but Pressure Machine—the title of which evokes a growing disenchantment with an American dream that seems unattainable for most—is a profoundly, and justifiably, cynical album. He owns up to his youthful alienation on opening track “West Hills” (“While they bowed their heads on Sunday/I cut out through the hedges and fields”) before acknowledging, in hindsight, the silent suffering of a closeted gay peer across town on “Terrible Thing.” When he sings, “I’m in my bedroom on the verge of a terrible thing,” it’s delicate, even elegant, rather than heavy-handed or morose.
The album’s more stripped-down musical approach—acoustic guitars, fiddle, and pedal steel abound—and focus on character-driven songs peel back the stadium-rock pretense that, for better or worse, defined the Killers’s past work. The heartland-rock-infused “Quiet Town” and the crackling murder ballad “Desperate Things” evoke Bruce Springsteen’s meticulous sketches of small-town America (perhaps not coincidentally, the Boss is featured on a recent re-recording of the Killers’s 2009 song “A Dustland Fairytale”).
Musically, Pressure Machine is such a departure that, at times, it feels more like a solo Brandon Flowers album than a Killers one. The bulk of the songs were co-written by the singer and Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, who previously contributed to Imploding the Mirage. But the presence of lead guitarist Dave Keuning, who was absent from that earlier album’s recording process after taking an extended sabbatical from the Killers, is palpable on tracks like “Cody,” with its distorted guitar solo, and the rollicking “In the Car Outside.”
The latter song offers up another one of the poignant but anthemic one-liners that Flowers has become known for—“It’s like the part of me that’s screaming not to jump gets lost/In the sound/Of the train/It’s a lot”—and an extended instrumental outro that’s quintessential Killers. For all that’s in flux, in both America and rock ‘n’ roll, it’s comforting that at least some things never change.