After a purgatorial stint of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also affected certain aspects of the album itself, The Killers are back with their seventh studio album, Pressure Machine. The band co-produced the album with Jonathan Rado and Shawn Everett, who had production credits on the band’s previous album, Imploding the Mirage.
To call a Killers album “well-produced” may seem like stating the obvious, but Rado, Everett and the band deserve credit for successfully creating a Steinbeckian-esque concept album. The album’s cover art, depicting a barbed wire fence with a field of crosses out-of-focus in the background, serves as the songs’ thematic thesis statement. The photo was taken outside of a Baptist church in lead singer Brandon Flowers’ hometown of Nephi, Utah. The songs depict faith and religion amidst the backdrop of a Southwest small town that has grown stagnant and is decaying, decades after it was absorbed by urban sprawl and subsequently left deserted.
As could probably be gathered by the symbolism of the album art, subtlety isn’t exactly a strength. The vast majority of the songs invoke religion through invoking faith, prayer, sin, Biblical references, or Christian iconography. Faith and religion are central themes to Pressure Machine, which is understandable given the context of the album, but the band fail to add much commentary to these topics, and their usage can feel hollow, like they are gesturing at thematic depth without conviction, and the commentary that is there is not very unique.
For example, the song “Quiet Town” seems to be implying that the loving, altruistic tenets taught to followers of Christ may turn corrupted by certain self-identified Christians’ interpretations and, as a result, carry a sinisterness to it that could make them do evil deeds. This is hardly a premise that hasn’t been touched on before: the idea of zealots turning malevolent because of their distorted dogmatic views.
Not to turn a review for a Killers album into a theological debate, the contention above is on the muddled nature of what the band are trying to communicate with their exploration of faith and religion; not that these topics are too sacrosanct to be touched for observation or scrutiny. Good art should strive for iconoclastic examen of sacred cows. It just fails to deliver here.
The album shines in its depiction of a sparsely populated town and the personal struggles of its residents. The well-produced music is contrasted by seemingly real and lo-fi sounding interviews, comments, and banter from what’s meant to be the town’s residents. With the notable exceptions of “Terrible Thing” and “Desperate Things”, all of the songs on the album begin with a person indicating the topic that the ensuing song will explore. It helps to give a sense of the town’s geography, poverty, and crime issues, as well as the class background of its residents, which accumulates to give you a sense of being dropped into this town as an outsider and gathering its history through osmosis.
The music on Pressure Machine features some nice versatility. For example, with their use of acoustic-driven songs, they manage to establish notably different moods. “Terrible Thing”, “Runaway Horses”, and “Sleepwalker” are all driven by acoustic guitars, yet “Terrible Thing” is a cheerless first-person narrative from somebody in their bedroom, writing on the precipice of suicide, “Runaway Horses” is a romantic duet with Phoebe Bridgers, and “Sleepwalker” combines a jingly acoustic riff with some playful keys, in what is probably the closest to a Hot Fuss-era sounding song.
There is further interesting musicality: “In the Car Outside” combines a dance-pop beat with a slide guitar for an interesting effect. “Quiet Town” juxtaposes its dramatic subject matter with a track that sounds like the opening theme song from a 1980s sitcom, as does the song “In Another Life”. “Cody” is a standout track, but the best song on the album may be “Desperate Things”, which strips away the ironic collocation of “Quiet Town” and “In Another Life” and gives its dire subject matter an equally dire undercurrent. It’s dark, intense, and gives serious emphasis to the topic of the song. Unfortunately, “Desperate Things” is the antepenultimate track on the album, and the two succeeding tracks, “Pressure Machine” and “The Getting By”, fail to live up to it. “Pressure Machine” is forgettable, save for a nice harmony and a fiddle that gets introduced towards the end that replicates the melody and “The Getting By” is a country-esque track that serves as a decent way to close the album up, but not much more.
Pressure Machine is a mixed bag, both musically and narratively. It should be applauded for its success in creating and maintaining its established atmosphere. The idea of having a continuous narrative on the album is strengthened by featuring no obvious radio hit and instead allowing each song to compliment the overall piece. Creating narratives surrounding the maintenance of belief betwixt serious social issues like poverty, urban decay, the opioid crisis, personal relationships and struggles, and depression sadly seem like fitting topics for modern-day Americana, but the writers, as empathetic to those topics as they may be, seem too divorced from the subjects that they are dealing with to offer any fresh perspectives.