“The old cliche: write what you know about?” says Brandon Flowers. “It took me 20 years to write what I know about on this record. It’s not as easy as it sounds.” Speaking in a promotional film for new album Pressure Machine, at a suburban crossroads in his hometown of Nephi, Utah, The Killers frontman looks almost every inch the small-town boy. He hugs his elbows and twists a nervous foot in the weed-split road. That stadium-charging charisma just peeps out from beneath his baseball cap, as he talks about wanting to celebrate the working-class lives of folks like his parents. He goes on to describe his big, calloused-palmed dad creeping out of the house for work at 3am each morning “like a mouse” without waking his family.
Cynics may see Flowers’ ongoing bid to become his generation’s answer to Bruce Springsteen as tired and hokey. But he’s clearly put his whole heart into the endeavour. And though the band’s seventh record lacks big tunes, it’s been written with an eye for lyrical detail that often puts The Boss in the shade. Pull out the drawers of these songs and they rattle with the sentiment attached to old workplace name tags and Happy Meal toys.
Inspired by Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection Winesburg, Ohio, and John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, Pressure Machine is loosely billed as a “concept album” about the various inhabitants of a small Bible Belt town. Shot through with vox pops from genu-wine Utahians, the scene is painted in all its complexity. It’s both “a good place to raise a family” with “the mountains in your backyard” and a place where they’ll tie you to the high school flagpole “if you don’t fit their mould”. Flowers, who still lives about a 90-minute drive from Nephi after a decade in Las Vegas, looks at the issues of depression, prescription drug abuse and homophobia dead in the eye: “The Kingdom of God? It’s a pressure machine/ Every step gotta keep it clean…”
In the silence of lockdown, the band best known for a bombast they turned up to 11 on 2020’s Imploding the Mirage found themselves embracing a new, sonic restraint. That doesn’t make this their answer to Nebraska. But it does mean they’ve traded the cinemascope synths and solos for porch swing finger-picking and pedal steel notes that stretch and yawn across tumbleweed horizons. There are lonesome gusts of harmonica and warm-hearted fiddle phrases, along with nods to the Nineties bands The Killers grew up on: Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Radiohead.
Expansive opener “West Hills” is the band’s first song in drunken-waltzy 6/8 time. Against an REM-indebted mandolin and a slow churn of grunge guitar and layered vocals, Flowers tells the story of a man found in “possession of hillbilly heroin pills… enough to kill the horses who run free in the Western Hills.” There are echoes of U2’s “With or Without You” in the pulse of the title track, on which Flowers captures the family man ethos of a guy who takes a pride in rising early to cut the grass: “We’ve had that treadmill now for months/ I think she might have used it once/ I’ll shut my mouth and keep the peace/ She’ll cook my eggs in bacon grease…” The workaday motions are beautifully counterbalanced by Flowers’ soaring falsetto.
A poppier synth sparkles in the intro to “Quiet Town” (about the real story of a couple killed by a train when Flowers was in the eighth grade) and burns through “In Another Life”. There’s gentle picking on the awful story of a young man alone in his bedroom on the verge of “A Terrible Thing”, then a rare squall of electric guitar solo on “Cody”, for the guy who “says he didn't start the fire / His parents know he probably did / He's always playing with a light / He's just a different kind of kid…” Phoebe Bridgers adds sweet, subtle exhalations to “Runaway Horses”, about a girl with a “Coca-Cola grin/ Honeysuckle skin”.
Some of these lyrics would be better sold if Flowers could allow himself to stop the eyes-closed singing and adopt a conversational tone. A little more campfire crackle to his delivery would have helped lift these good short stories from the prettily glowing embers of forgettable and occasionally recycled melodies.
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