After The Killers released last year’s successful Imploding the Mirage, the isolation of quarantine then inspired Brandon Flowers to revisit his small-town upbringing in Nephi, Utah. In the resulting Pressure Machine, the current Killers lineup explores the peaks and valleys that exist in the American small town—religion, domestic violence, and more, on through to the tight sense of community that can’t be replicated anywhere else. It’s a more pared-down version of The Killers than fans are used to, taking a break from the group’s usual showy flourishes: Flowers calls the new tracks “songs that would have otherwise been too quiet and drowned out by the noise of typical Killers records.” This gives the band’s strengths—poetic lyrics, Flowers’ anguished vocals, and the welcome return of Dave Keuning’s powerful guitar licks—a chance to shine. Most songs lead off with a quote from small-town residents related to the lyrics that follow, be it church, drugs, trains, horses, work, or just someone claiming they never want to live anywhere else but where they are.
That nostalgic vibe (look for lyrics about running through the sprinklers and happy meals) can lean into ’80s-sounding synths, as in “Quiet Town,” a haunting ode to a town’s gone-too-soon youth, whether residents are falling victim to a Union Pacific train accident or opioids: “Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes.” Some of The Killers’ storytelling gets even more granular on Pressure Machine: “In The Car Outside” is like a version of Springsteen’s “The River” from a different angle, as a too-young father tries to grab a few moments of peace, stress-fueled synths mimicking his own anxiety as he looks back to “remember when she used to set the room on fire with her eyes / Swear to god.” Phoebe Bridgers shows up on the completely minimalist “Runaway Horses,” an ode to a small-town girl with a “coca-cola grin” and “honeysuckle skin” who traded “school for weddings rings and rent.” (At the very least, Pressure Machine works as a really effective campaign for teenage birth control.)
The rural stories in Pressure Machine ultimately string together narratively, like a Sherwood Anderson collection. “Desperate Things” is another troubled vignette, about a married highway patrolman who gets involved with an abused wife. It starts out plaintive, with mournful steel guitar underlying lines like “There was blood from her mouth dry on her shoulder,” then segues into surreal 4AD territory as the cop narrator takes revenge on his lover’s abuser: “I’ve never had much patience for guys that hit / For more than just obvious reasons.” Songs like “Cody,” with its angelic horns, and the title track examine the religious groups these small communities often depend on (Flowers grew up in the The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints), building to the orchestral country of album closer “The Getting By,” which floats on an ethereal sea of strings.
Appropriately, one of the last sounds on the album is a train whistle (is it the most mournful sound in the world?) indicating the promise of escape from what Flowers calls a “barbed-wire town”—but it’s off in the distance, too far away to seem real. It’s a fitting close to Flowers’ warts-and-all tour of the place taking prominence in his memory—effectively scored by some of the most openly emotional music The Killers have ever created. The unflinching nostalgia of Pressure Machine is strong enough to inspire our own thoughts back to wherever we think of as “home,” and how it remains a part of us even if it’s not the place we would have chosen ourselves.