Pressure Machine is the sequel to The Killers’ return-to-form, Imploding the Mirage, bookending a year in the pandemic. However, Pressure Machine feels more like a sister album than anything, filling in the gaps left by last year’s Imploding the Mirage. Where the last record was bombastic and adventurous, celebrating singer Brandon Flowers’ family, Pressure Machine is stripped-back and introspective, recalling his childhood in the city of Nephi, Utah. Its low-profile release reflects the nature of the record, drawing comparisons to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. But make no mistake: Pressure Machine doesn’t forgo liveliness for its depth, as it is The Killers’ most engaging and exciting album since Sam’s Town.
It’s hard to deny that The Killers have become a singles band; while they have some fantastic deep cuts, their anthemic hits tower over the rest of their discography, filling up the A-side of each of their albums. It seems a surprise that they would release a record with little-to-no fanfare, and Pressure Machine’s lack of singles is a testament to its quality as a body of work. Pressure Machine is intended to first be experienced as a whole, solidified by the audio snippets between songs that reconstruct Flowers’ memory of Nephi. While an abridged version of the album can be found on streaming without the snippets, they are crucial for listeners to understand the reality of life in a small town in America.
It’s unavoidable to compare Pressure Machine to Taylor Swift’s folklore, as albums born from the pandemic successfully turned away from pop to explore folk storytelling. Just as Swift’s roots were in country, The Killers have always been Americana (Sam’s Town, Battle Born, Imploding the Mirage), yet Pressure Machine is the first time that they lean into their folk influences, rather than the sparkling synths of Las Vegas. Throughout the record, Flowers narrates stories from different perspectives, building on the audio snippets to tell tales of escapism and domesticity. Perhaps the most apt comparison for Pressure Machine is Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, both of which masterfully capture the transience and melancholy of rural America, where the motif of the train is central to both pieces of work as symbolic of escapism.
The album begins with three snippets that introduce ‘West Hills’, from residents who have never left. The woman of the first recording talks about her life, saying that she has “lived here for 26 years”; this continues throughout the recordings, and by the final recording, there is a resignation that “we’ll be here forever”. Flowers turns this acceptance of being stuck into celebration of being “free in the west hills” through the lens of a drug-addicted Mormon, building the world of the record. Throughout Pressure Machine, Flowers returns to the themes of the opioid crisis and religion (not to mention suicide, guns, and bull-fighting), but he remains apolitical, establishing the themes as a matter-of-fact part of life in Nephi.
The second song, ‘Quiet Town’, introduces the motif of the train in its opening snippet. A man states that “every two or three years, the train kills somebody”, and believes that “the train is a way to find your way out of this life, if you get hit by it”. Despite being the most upbeat song on the record, ‘Quiet Town’ is one of the most powerful. The song is marred by tragedy, with Flowers singing about “a couple of kids [who] got hit by a Union Pacific train”. While Flowers praises the quaintness of Nephi, he proclaims, “part of me is still that stainless kid, lucky” to get out; Flowers had the means to escape elsewhere on the train, while for those who have never left, the train can only be an escape from life.
The train returns on the album’s centrepiece, ‘In the Car Outside’, a colossal song that chugs along with its motorik beat and rolling bass, describing the narrator’s infidelity in a fading marriage. The narrator compares his wife’s depression to “waiting for a train to pass and I don’t know when it’ll pass”, adding the dimension of the liminality of waiting to the metaphor of the train, and in a broader context, to living in Nephi. The narrator then uses the Dylan-esque imagery of comparing his wife crying to a train, before comparing his affair to “screaming not to jump [getting] lost in the sound of a train”, returning to the train as representative of a way out.
Despite this, the record ends on an optimistic note; ‘The Getting By’ begins with a with a woman detailing the “nice part[s]” of living in Nephi, and ends with a continuation of the snippet from ‘Quiet Town’. The man continues to talk about the train and says, “My grandkids, when it comes through, they run out and look down the road because they like to see it go by”. The song’s message of “put[ting] another day in […] till the getting’s good” is reflected in the shift from the train as symbolic of death to a source of happiness, rewriting the death that taints much of the album into life.
In fact, this optimism can be found on one of The Killers’ best songs to date, ‘Sleepwalker’. ‘Sleepwalker’ celebrates nature and renewal, and by comparing human change to that of the seasons, Flowers brings to life the idyllic pastoral, where “wildflowers paint the western hills”. The song is encapsulated by its lyrics, “it doesn’t come from without / it comes from within”, criticising the need for escapism in lieu of working on oneself and tackling one’s own problems.
While the imagery and stories of Pressure Machine are exclusive to rural America, the lyrics capture the universality of being stuck in the pressure machine, whether the machine be late capitalism, or most relevant of all, the pandemic. Today, the growing mental health crisis means more people than ever find themselves turning towards the forms of escapism expressed by Flowers, such as drugs and spirituality. Pressure Machine does not offer a solution so much as acknowledge the universality of the human experience, and be a reassuring cocktail of the emotions that come with it: most of all, hope.
Words by Stephen Ong
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