Over the course of six studio albums, Las Vegas’ finest The Killers have done what all artists hope to do – refine a sound so distinctly that their songs are instantly recognisable. Theirs is a style that is glitzy and glam, driven by euphoric synths and choruses you want to scream in the middle of the indie disco or a packed festival field. But what happens when a band with such specific calling cards branch out and try something new?
‘Pressure Machine’, the band’s seventh record, answers that question from Brandon Flowers and co’s perspective. Gone are the air-punching pop hooks and the buzz of the frontman’s glitter-covered synth. They’re replaced by pedal steel guitars, harmonicas, and a much quieter, smaller, and often darker approach.
The album is a character study on Nephi, the tiny Utah town that’s home to 5,300 people and is also where Flowers spent part of his life before becoming more closely associated with Sin City. He and his family lived there when he was between 10 and 16 years old, and the people he encountered and the things he experienced in those years have stuck with him for the two decades since. The Killers’ pandemic project gives him a chance to process those stories, as much as it shows us what else the band are capable of.
On the surging ‘Quiet Town’ – one of only a few songs that come even vaguely close to being a typical, big Killers singalong – he introduces us to “a couple of kids [who] got hit by a Union Pacific train”. Only four years above Flowers at school, the teens were parents to a baby and “planning on getting married”. After evocatively taking us into the end of their lives, the singer sighs: “Things like that ain’t supposed to happen/ In this quiet town.”
The frontman has always been a sharp storyteller, but ‘Pressure Machine’ presents some of his most powerful tales yet. On the acoustic guitar ballad ‘Terrible Thing’, he puts himself in the shoes of a teenager struggling with his sexuality and “on the verge of a terrible thing” – taking his own life. “Around here we all take up our cross/ And hang on his holy name,” Flowers sings mournfully, referencing Nephi’s origins as a Mormon settlement. “But the cards that I was dealt/ Will get you thrown out of the game.” ‘Runaway Horses’, which features Phoebe Bridgers, finds him describing a “small-town girl” obsessed with Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ as having a “Coca-Cola grin/ Honeysuckle skin/ Born beneath the ready sign/ Of a strawberry moon”. It’s disarmingly beautiful, much like Bridgers’ vocals.
A recurring theme on ‘Pressure Machine’, though, is something that didn’t overtake Nephi until after Flowers was no longer a resident. While the record is very specific to his former home, the songs that touch on the opioid epidemic could be transposed to numerous towns and cities all across America. “They got me for possession/ Of them hillbilly heroin pills,” he sings on ‘West Hills’, over cello, fiddle and strings that give the song a sorrowful air. “Enough to kill the horses that run/ Free in the west hills.”
The record in part also dismantles the idea of the American Dream. ‘The Getting By’’s narrator takes us through working life and the frustrations of hard toil not being rewarded with what you’ve been promised. “My people were told/ They’d prosper in this land,” Flowers sings but – as is common across the whole album – gratitude isn’t far away. “Still I know some/ Who’ve never seen the ocean/ Or set one foot on a velvet bed of sand.”
In between Flowers’ mining of his time in the town, soundbites from current Nephi locals tie the whole thing together. They shine a light on things like the “youth stampede” and what a good town it is for raising a family, or warn of the dangers of the train that’s taken many a life or the opioids that have claimed more. Hearing their accents and the documentary feel of the recordings is the final stage in transporting you into the heart of Utah.
While ‘Pressure Machine’ might not be your quintessential Killers album, it does boast a couple of songs you could almost see jostling into the setlist between some of their bigger bangers. ‘In The Car Outside’ has undertones of Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and its chorus tiptoes close to the band’s usual rousing M.O., while ‘Quiet Town’ threatens to lift from its gentle bounce into something more energetic. The point of this record isn’t to make crowds go wild, though, and, as a still snapshot of small-town life, it’s a beautifully executed trip out of our rooms and into somewhere new.