The simplest guitar riff lives on forever — just a few chords that somehow have the power to stop people of all ages in their tracks, beckoning them to scream along to the lyrics they know so well and dance to the same beat they’ve danced to a hundred times. The one and only “Mr. Brightside” is the song that brought The Killers fame in 2004.
In the years that have passed, the band has had quite a few hit songs with undoubtedly catchy melodies, but the lyrics have unfortunately lacked a deep and emotional maturity. The Killers turn a new page with its latest album “Pressure Machine,” featuring 11 songs that are incredibly personal and real.
Lead singer Brandon Flowers created the album during lockdown, and the sense of dread, anger and self-reflection is clear. “Pressure Machine” walks the listener through Flowers’s 90s childhood years in the small town of Nephi, Utah where he grew up. It becomes infinitely clear why The Killers have so many songs about running away and leaving adolescence behind.
The album opener, “West Hills,” is jarring, spelling out a story of a small town trapped in its own ways that fosters opioid addiction, abuse, crime and a culture of never leaving. Many of the songs, including this one, open with a grainy tape recording of people talking about the town and what they love and hate about it. The tapes give a voice to the stories that Flowers tells through his words and music, giving proof to the image that he creates in every song.
The second song, “Quiet Town,” opens with a tape talking about trains regularly killing people in the town, with one voice saying that the train offers an escape from life there. The tape is heart wrenching — and, as soon as it cuts out, an upbeat song is introduced with 80s-esque keyboard chimes.
“A couple of kids got hit by a Union Pacific Train / Carrying sheet metal and household appliances through the pouring rain / They were planning on getting married after graduation, had a little baby girl,” Flowers sings over a light and bouncy Springsteen-inspired electric guitar. The incongruity of horrific words tangled with a lighthearted folk pop melody of harmonica, piano and guitar is difficult to listen to and feels unbelievably out of touch.
“Runaway Horses” is the only song that has another artist explicitly featured, bringing in indie-rock star Phoebe Bridgers to sing a duet. It is a soulful and emotional ballad about a girl that marries young and leaves her dreams and future behind for love, effectively buying into the small town life. The lyrics are masterful, showing Flowers’s talent for telling stories and bringing the listener along for the ride.
“Small town girl, Coca-Cola grin, honeysuckle skin,” Flowers sings, creating a main character that is so clear in just one line. The guitar on this song is quite possibly the best on the album because it is so crisp, light and simplistic — just an uninterrupted acoustic riff. Bridgers is only present for a duet in the final three choruses, which is rather disappointing as her voice is dominated by Flowers creating a one-sided story. The song loses its charm because of the missed opportunity to include a back-and-forth duet that would have better suited the lyrics of a girl leaving her dreams as someone comments from an outside perspective.
The album’s namesake “Pressure Machine” is without a doubt one of the best on the album, despite not really being much of a fan favorite. It falls second to last on the track list and has the second to least listens on Spotify. The song amplifies an indie pop and folk sound, mirroring bands like The Head and the Heart and the Lumineers. The melody is simplistic and refreshing with a gritty acoustic guitar that is so clear even small snags on the chords can be heard, giving it a close and authentic feel.
The lyrics are memorable and tell a compelling story of time passing by in a small town that resonates beautifully, even with those who haven’t experienced the kind of life Flowers describes. “Jiminy Cricket and Power Wheels / And memories of Happy Meals,” Flowers sings. The song closes with a wailing violin that captures the yearning, heartbreak and contentment of small town life perfectly as it swirls around the guitar melodies.
For many bands, the additional downtime created by the pandemic led to a slower, more deliberate lyrical process. This seems to be the case for The Killers. “Pressure Machine” clearly shows what can be gained with a closer focus on song meaning and storylines. Flowers is at his best in this album with a range of vocals and lyrics that are not only impressive but also so different from past albums. Each and every song is worth a listen to hear the complete story from start to finish through every loss, win and struggle.