For better or for worse, the Killers’ legacy and reputation were cemented with Sam’s Town. Released 15 years ago, the band’s second record established Brandon Flowers and co. as a band of Springsteen aspirants whose best approximations of “Dancing in the Dark” always seemed to miss the mark by at least a few hundred feet. They were Vegas-dwelling pop stars who fetishized all-American rock but who could only ever recreate it the Vegas way: lit with brighter lights, made with ersatz materials, and free of the gravitas of the definite article. The resulting songs—gleaming, indie-disco-ready hits like “When You Were Young” and “Read My Mind”—were most satisfying when they leaned into pop star pomp; the band seemed to cotton on to that fact, all but ditching the Boss worship on future records in order to try on shinier, more glamorous guises.
Five albums and a decade-and-a-half later, at about the exact point where they could have resigned themselves to a life of greatest hits tours, the Killers have decided to return to, if not exactly Sam’s Town, then somewhere down the road from there. Pressure Machine, the band’s seventh record and second in just under a year, is a decidedly more successful show of Springsteen idolatry: a concept album about Flowers’ childhood home of Nephi, Utah, that pays newfound attention to things like scene-setting and narrative throughline, key songwriting components that the Killers have always appeared to consider casualties in their pursuit of the Next Great Arena Anthem. Although positioned as a companion piece to last year’s camp, invigorated Imploding the Mirage—an artistic refocusing helmed by indie superproducers Jonathan Rado and Shawn Everett—it more often feels a little like an attempt on Flowers’ part to affirm himself as a writer with gas still left in the tank.
Flowers approaches Pressure Machine’s subject matter with a kind of dippy openness; he is entirely uncynical and, perhaps as a result, also entirely uncritical of his own authorial view. Sam’s Town, written with youth still in the rearview, focused on protagonists with palpable contempt for their hometown; here, he seems content to sketch out a relatively uncomplicated image of life in Nephi—specifically, life in Nephi in the ’90s, when he was a teen—that’s rife with problems but somehow absent villains both individual and systemic. Homophobia, in Flowers’ Nephi, is attributable to the fact that “culture is king”; the opioid crisis kind of just… exists; a life of forced poverty is presented as something immovable. There are no systems of cause and effect in Flowers’ Nephi, and people don’t ever really change. In other words, there are gaping holes in Flowers’ worldview, likely related to the fact that he’s about 20 years and several socioeconomic rungs removed from where he was when he actually lived in Nephi.
But discard a little bit of cynicism, and Pressure Machine starts to open up: Aside from the bloated opener “West Hills,” these songs feature Flowers’ most fully realized songwriting, the result of him writing lyrics ahead of recording for the first time ever, rather than just “scrambling at the last minute” for impressionistic, batshit phrases that have come to define his certain je ne sais quoi as a lyricist.
Although the Killers’ Springsteen worship has always been more of a vibe, “Desperate Things” is pure Nebraska, a murder ballad about a police officer who vengefully kills his girlfriend’s abusive husband. The song is spare and mournful until its fifth and sixth verses—perhaps the only fifth and sixth verses in the entire Killers oeuvre—when the song suddenly becomes all caterwauling guitar and cymbal crash. “You forget how dark the canyon gets/It’s a real uneasy feeling,” Flowers sings. You get the sense that intimacy is not his natural mode, that he’d much prefer writing songs less beholden to narrative and more driven by feeling and melody—perfect car stereo music. But the ambition is exciting and inspiring nonetheless: “Desperate Things” is troubled not just by its climactic violence, but by the twist that the officer has a wife and a daughter, too.
As on “Desperate Things,” the best moments of Pressure Machine add destabilizing wrinkles to Flowers’ usual iconography-heavy lyricism. “Quiet Town,” a spirited jaunt featuring cult Americana singer-songwriter Joe Pug on harmonica, is easily dismissed as a shallow Springsteen tribute—“They still don’t deadbolt their doors at night/In this quiet town” goes its chorus—until you realize the chorus is a foil to Flowers’ deceptively upbeat verses, which convey the chill of the opioid crisis sweeping in: “When we first heard opioid stories/They were in whispering tones/Now banners of sorrow/Mark the front of childhood homes,” he sings. It makes “Quiet Town”’s chorus sound more like a plea: This community is good, so why is it suffering?
“Quiet Town” introduces one of Pressure Machine’s most compelling thematic strains: How does one keep faith in the face of genuine struggle? On “Terrible Thing,” Flowers writes from the perspective of a closeted teen 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.” There is no answer here, and no inspirational message: The protagonist, who in earlier Killers songs might have dreamt of ecstatic freedom, finds no solace in childhood memories. On “Cody,” one of a couple songs on Pressure Machine that feel inspired by R.E.M., Flowers once again questions the church’s deep roots in Nephi: “Cody says He didn’t raise the dead/Says religion’s just a trick/To keep hard-working folks in line/He says it makes his stomach sick.” Resigned as it is, “Cody” suggests you can believe both: Nothing’s real, but a miracle might just make everything better, too.
Reckonings with God don’t preclude Pressure Machine from including some of the Killers’ most direct pop songwriting. “In the Car Outside,” the record’s flushed centerpiece, inverts the band’s usual formula: Instead of a song about getting out of some shitty town, this is “Born to Run” on an endless treadmill, no end in sight. Its combustible heart is fueled by its protagonist’s recklessness and his death drive; the song is a race towards nowhere, culminating in a soaring, wordless finale. In a similar vein is “In Another Life,” the band’s most paranoid song since Hot Fuss. Where that record dealt in tales of defeatist glamour and anxious one night stands, the protagonist of this song is alone, drunk, wondering if he’s really living the dream he thought he was as the jukebox in the corner of the bar plays “country songs of stories that sound like mine.” These anti-anthems play to Flowers’ strengths as a songwriter without retreading old ground, examining the foundations of the “breakin’ out of this two-star town” fantasies of Killers songs past.
Ultimately, though, Pressure Machine rarely escapes Flowers’ Brandon Flowers-ness: try as he might—and you do get the sense that he’s trying so, so hard—his usual wide-tipped brush can’t do justice to what should be finely detailed scenes. He is a lover of maximalism and of songs “consume[d] through your heart” rather than your brain, a rightfully beloved form that nonetheless smothers the subtlety required to, say, tell the story of the opioid crisis’ incursion into Nephi. Flowers will always be pop’s great architect of the bright and shiny—but in the case of Pressure Machine, the people of Nephi deserve the real thing.
Buy: Rough Trade
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