Album of the Week: The Killers’ ‘Pressure Machine’
August 13th, 2021 marked the beginning of a brand new era for American rock band The Killers. On August 13th, avid fans of The Killers were taken by surprise at the new sound the band had decided to explore on their new album, ‘Pressure Machine.’ The Killers are known for their dynamic garage-rock sound, often reminiscent of the grunge music that characterized the late 1990s. However, ‘Pressure Machine’ diverges from the band’s typical style, opting instead for a more vulnerable, singer-songwriter type of sound. While the Killers’ biggest hit, ‘Mr. Brightside’ is likely to live on as their defining tune, it is worth noting the gems that can be found within the grooves of the ‘Pressure Machine’ record. The sincerity embedded within each song is a true testament to the songwriting prowess of The Killers’ frontman, Brandon Flowers.
The album ‘Pressure Machine’ was written as a narrative concept album to pay homage to Flowers’ hometown of Nelphi, Utah. Throughout the 12-track album, vivid pictures of life in Nelphi and the stories of those who inhabit the rural town are portrayed with gorgeous openness. Flowers holds nothing back in terms of the narratives, but holds even less back in his raw delivery. Each song is brimming with sentimentality, something not typically associated with The Killers’ music. Naturally, all five of the band’s studio albums contain genuine lyrics, but prior to the release of ‘Pressure Machine,’ those lyrics were often overshadowed by the glitz of the high production quality and masterful composition of the backing tracks. While listening to ‘Pressure Machine,’ listeners are confronted head-on with a slew of meaningful, heartfelt lyrics. The musicality is subdued for this album, but this does not mean that the album lacks the power of The Killers prior works.
It is also interesting to listen to the ways in which Flowers experiments with storytelling on ‘Pressure Machine.’ Most songs by The Killers follow clear narratives, but are not usually interconnected. Since ‘Pressure Machine’ is a concept album, it feels like individual characters are the speakers of each song’s lyrics. Each song is able to create an empathetic bond between the listener and the protagonist of the tune. Flowers furthered this experimentation with the role of characters on the album by opening most of the tracks with interviews. These interviews appear to be with residents of Nelphi, Utah, and they typically serve as 30-second or one minute introductions to the individual songs. The theme of each interview is elaborated on through Flowers’ lyrics. Themes covered throughout the 55-minute long album span from the effect of the opioid crisis on the town of Nelphi, to teen suicide.
An overwhelming number of the tracks on ‘Pressure Machine’ can be classified as ballads; this is quite fitting with the passion Flowers brings forth in his writing on the album. Even on more upbeat tracks, the tempo remains quite tame, and there is no focus on the glamor of unnecessary instrumentals. Rather, the instrumentals in each song — ballads and up-tempo — help to tell the story. There is tons of variation in tempo and rhythm on almost every track, which I feel helps to keep the narrative concept interesting. These shifts in tempo and rhythm are also excellent devices in the stages of the plots of individual songs; the variation does an excellent job keeping the flow of the songs on track to hit every essential plot point.
There are certainly a number of standout songs that do not qualify as ballads. While the overall feel of the album is sentimental and vulnerable, an album by The Killers would not be complete without a handful of tunes to dance to. Tracks like ‘Sleepwalker’ and ‘In The Car Outside’ serve as the album’s signature dance tracks. Despite these two songs fitting more into the mold of The Killers’ earlier work, they are not exempt from heavy narratives. These two songs are very reminiscent of the qualities that made audiences fall in love with The Killers’ 2006 album, ‘Sam’s Town.’ Like ‘Sam’s Town,’ both ‘Sleepwalker’ and ‘In The Car Outside’ have the ability to rouse listeners to their feet whilst simultaneously provoking deep thought concerning the intricacies of life.
My personal favorite track on the album, ‘Desperate Things,’ yields quite possibly the bleakest narrative of the entire album, but disguises this fact with an enchantingly minimalist instrumentation. The music evokes a sense of hopefulness, and the lyrics directly juxtapose this. In the song, the narrator is a police officer who strikes up an affair with a woman who is in an abusive relationship. The officer is still married and has a young daughter. His concepts of empathy and love are seemingly obscured, as he cannot quite distinguish the two in relation to his feelings for the battered woman. He takes matters into his own hands and murders the abusive boyfriend of his mistress, with the intent of freeing her from the confines of her volatile relationship. The lyrics depicting the murder are accompanied by a cacophony of distorded guitars, cowbells, and off-beat drums; this perfectly illustrates the shift in tone from a painful love story to a tragedy. This is precisely why ‘Desperate Things’ is my favorite track on the album. This song is the best example of the new storytelling tactics Flowers employs on ‘Pressure Machine.’
Out of five stars, I would have to award ‘Pressure Machine’ a four. The writing is exemplary (musically and lyrically), the concept is compelling, the narratives are portrayed evenly well between the instrumentation and lyrics, and the use of interviews is a fascinating way to connect audiences to the truth behind the concepts. However, my one complaint is that too many songs are too slow. Slow ballads are lovely ways to tell sentimental stories, but they do not need to go on for too long. Most of the tracks on ‘Pressure Machine’ are between five and six minutes long; except the upbeat ones. A little more variation in tempo and runtime of songs is the only thing I would alter on this album. Overall, though, ‘Pressure Machine’ is certainly a move in a compelling and beautiful direction for The Killers. I am curious to see if they maintain this vulnerability and subtlety in their next album.