Intimate, cinematic, and stirring, The Killers’ seventh album ‘Pressure Machine’ aims to capture a slice of “Americana” through powerfully expressive storytelling: Tales of loss and tragedy, depression and disenchantment, nostalgia and longing comprise the band’s most visceral and vulnerable exploration of small town life and the poignant pursuit of the American dream.
Stream: ‘Pressure Machine’ – The Killers
Hope’ll set your eyes agleam, like four feet dangling in the stream, but the Kingdom of God, it’s a pressure machine – every step, gotta keep it clean…
Intimate, cinematic, and stirring, The Killers’ seventh studio album is more a full-bodied experience than it is your standard collection of rock songs.
Set in Brandon Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah, Pressure Machine (released Aug 3, 2021 via Island Records) is a character-study-driven album fueled by true stories of small town American life and the poignant pursuit of the American dream. It’s heartland music depicting the heartland of the country – a journey through the “middle of nowhere,” as the band affectionately describes it, where they (and in particular, Flowers) stop to take stock of and document the many lives living out their days there under the Western sun.
Is this the life you chose yourself
Or just how it ended up?
Is that the yard you pictured when
You closed your eyes and dreamed
Of children in the grass running through the sprinklers?
Being somebody’s wife?
Or were you living in another life?
When will I make it home?
When I damn well feel like driving
Down these empty streets
That burn through our birthright
– “In Another Life,” The Killers
To some, Pressure Machine might be seen as cataloging deaths of despair – yet despite the great pain and suffering found in Flowers’ songwriting, there is beauty waiting to be found as well – albeit beauty tinged with grief. Tales of loss and tragedy, depression and disenchantment, nostalgia and longing comprise The Killers’ most tender, filmic, and cohesive record to date – one that reckons with everything from the ravages of the opioid epidemic on close communities (“In Another Life”) to the personal impacts of extramarital affairs (“Desperate Things”), to life’s daily pressures of survival and success.
The Killers have long written about breaking out of that unnamed small American town, and tracks like the radiant anthem “In the Car Outside,” the bittersweet “Runaway Horses” (a serene acoustic ballad featuring indie folk superstar Phoebe Bridgers), and the beautiful title track “Pressure Machine” bring to life those feelings of yearning and thirsting for something more – or perhaps, not? – with intensified vulnerability and visceral, moving imagery.
I was born right here in Zion, God’s own son
His Holy Ghost stories and bloodshed never scared me none
While they bowed their heads on Sunday
I cut out through the hedges and fields
Where the light could place its hands on my head
In the west hills
She’s got two full-grown children, one still on the vine
And once I got to know him, I loved him like he was mine
Some nights, we drive up the mouth of the canyon
On hillbilly heroin pills
We get out and watch the sunset
Peaceful and still
Free in the west hills…
– “West Hills,” The Killers
Bookended by the impassioned upheaval “West Hills” and the heartfelt, breathtaking grand finale “The Getting By,” Pressure Machine is its own enclave – an intimately relatable world unto itself. It’s a setting and soundscape defined not only by its human denizens – each with their own hopes, dreams, and stories to tell – but also by its mainstays, like the train, whose presence can be felt in Flowers’ lyrics, in various snippets of locals talking about their town, and in the field recordings that capture the locomotive’s majestic chug and whistle.
“I think the train is a way to find your way out of this life, if you get hit by it,” one local man says in the beginning of “Quiet Town.” Whether you climb aboard or find yourself on the tracks, the train, with its ability to come and go at will, is a way out – but it represents more than an escape. It’s hope; the possibility of something else, and perhaps the promise of another kind of life.
In this quiet town, salt of the land
if you’re in trouble, they’ll lend you a hand
Here in this quiet town
The first crop of hay is up
School let out and the sun beats down
Smoke billows from a Sunday train
That cries away from a quiet town
– “Quiet Town,” The Killers
For maybe the first time in The Killers’ musical career, Brandon Flowers allows himself to explore what it would have been like to stay at home; to marry his high school sweetheart, buy a house with a mortgage, work a 9 to 5 job, and raise a family in the privacy of a small town. He uses the characters in his songs to ask “what if?” – ultimately finding what some might label “mixed results” in the process.
Pressure Machine tries its best to not cast overt judgment; it lets these stories, allegedly taken from Flowers’ older memories and present-day observations, do the talking, and The Killers allow their listeners to interpret it all at will. While there is certainly an obvious skew in one direction, per some of the soundbites that help introduce Pressure Machine‘s songs, many folks in Nephi appear to be happy – or at least, content – with the place they call home, and the lives they’ve led there.
As a disaffected Flowers sings in the album’s final cut “The Getting By,” many rely on their faith to guide them through this life and off into the next one: “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…“
You know I believe in the Son, I ain’t no backslider
But my people were told they’d prosper in this land
Still, I know some who’ve never seen the ocean
Or set one foot on a velvet bed of sand
But 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
Maybe it’s the getting by that gets right underneath you
It’d swallow up your every step, boy, if it could
But maybe it’s the stuff it takes to get up
In the morning and put another day in, son
That holds you ’til the getting’s good
– “The Getting By,” The Killers
But is it all smoke and mirrors, and a performance for the sake of keeping up appearances? For much of Pressure Machine, the rose-colored glasses are cast off as life’s hardships and harsh realities take center stage. One can’t help but get absorbed in the album’s permeating sense of darkness and helplessness – the sense that for many, “getting out” isn’t an option even if they wanted to leave their small town.
In the title track “Pressure Machine” – one of the album’s most affecting standouts – we hear from a narrator who feels he has let time slip away from him, and with it any hopes and dreams he might have had for his life. “Hope’ll set your eyes agleam, like four feet dangling in the stream – but the Kingdom of God, it’s a pressure machine, every step, gotta keep it clean,” Flowers sings in the start. He goes on to question if any of what his domestic life is what he or his wife would have wanted, had they known then what they know now about how things would turn out. Full of sweeping strings and plaintive guitars, it’s a deeply bittersweet performance that conveys a lifetime of regrets and laments:
I don’t remember the last time you asked how I was
Don’t you feel the time slipping away?
It ain’t funny at all
It’s gonna break your heart one day…
Why don’t you say little things?
Butterflies don’t just dance on a string
It feels like you clipped all their wings
And every year goes by faster than the one before
We’ve had that treadmill now for months
I think she might’ve used it once
If I shut my mouth and keep the peace
She’ll cook my eggs in bacon grease
Life’ll grow you a big red rose
Then rip it from beneath your nose
Run it through the pressure machine
And spit you out a name tag memory
The Killers’ poetry is second to none throughout Pressure Machine. Sometimes a single line can sum up a world of feelings, as a forlorn Flowers manages to achieve on “In Another Life“: “When will I make it home? When that jukebox in the corner sops playing country songs of stories that sound like mine.“
“I discovered this grief that I hadn’t dealt with,” Flowers shared upon the album’s release, speaking to the reflections of his home that spurred to Pressure Machine‘s conceptualization and creation. “Many memories of my time in Nephi are tender, but the ones tied to fear or great sadness were emotionally charged. I’ve got more understanding now than when we started the band, and hopefully I was able to do justice to these stories and these lives in this little town that I grew up in.”
She’s in the house with the baby crying on the bed
She’s got this thing where she puts the walls so high
It doesn’t matter how much you love
It doesn’t matter how hard you try
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 shе turns, it’s like the shadow of the cross don’t cast
No blеssing over our lonely life
It’s like waiting for a train to pass, and I don’t know when it’ll pass
But I remember when she used to set the room on fire
With her eyes, swear to god
It’s like a flood of grief and sorrow from a haunted life
When she cries, like a train, it’s a lot
– “In the Car Outside,” The Killers
The Killers’ seventh album is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Pressure Machine isn’t your typical Killers rock record: Rather, it’s a collection of mostly somber ballads and power-ballads (with some notable epic, anthemic exceptions) that reflect on sobering topics in deeply vulnerable spaces. It purposefully strikes a far different tone from the band’s past catalog, giving what it was meant to give and attempting to be nothing more or less.
I’ve been taking lunch breaks at her work
When the restaurant ain’t too crowded
She knows me and my wife got a little girl
We don’t talk too much about it
The other night, she met me way out west
Things went further than they should have
But when she undid the buttons of her dress
I didn’t stop her, but I could have
When you’re in love, you can be blinded by your own heart
You’ll bend your own truth, so twisted up, you could justify sin
And when people in love are desperate enough to abandon their dreams
People do desperate things
– “Desperate Things,” The Killers
Pressure Machine‘s journey is a memorable and meaningful one: From the shining warmth of “Quiet Town” and the utter devastation of “Terrible Thing” (which explores depression and suicide), to the intimacy and deep melancholy of “Desperate Things” and the explorations of faith and disillusionment in the impassioned “Cody” (“We keep on waiting for the miracle to come, fall from the firmament and give us nice things“), The Killers ensure that their album is an immersive adventure, home to some of their most powerful storytelling to date.
One of the record’s most universal messages (and there are many here to be found) regarding “small town life” can be heard in the album’s finale, “The Getting By.” “Maybe it’s the getting by that gets right underneath you. It’d swallow up your every step, boy, if it could,” Flowers sings toward the song’s end, his voice taking on the humble hue of solemn acceptance. Gone are the positives and negatives, the judgments and the assumptions; here, he zooms into the present moment and tries to make peace with everything he’s observed and everything he’s reckoned – ultimately striving to simply take things one day at a time.
“But maybe it’s the stuff it takes to get up, in the morning and put another day in, son, that holds you ’til the getting’s good.” Put another day in, son; that’s all we can do: Hope for a better future and a brighter tomorrow.
As the song fades, a train’s horn starts to blow – at first far off in the distance, and then closer and closer. In the album’s last moments, that same man from “Quiet Town” shares a final note about the locomotive: “Twice a day it comes through — my grandkids, when it comes through, they run out and they look down the road, because they like to see it go by.” Is the train our saving grace and ticket out, or is it a pipe dream? Is it just passing through, or will it one day stop to pick us up? And when that day comes, will we be ready? Will we want to leave?
Pressure Machine leaves us to wonder where we’re going and where we’ve been as The Killers conclude their greatest album yet.
Like runaway horses in a fever ’til the end, and every step is a silver prayer in the face of a hard wind…
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📸 © 2021
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