When someone mentions The Killers, the ever-reliable Las Vegas rockers now edging closer and closer to their third decade of existence, what comes to mind? Bright, shiny synths? Huge anthemic choruses? A generous mix of heartland and glamourous indie rock and roll? Sure, that’s good. Now imagine putting that sound in a box and left it under the bed for twenty years, letting life pass it by until it comes out dusty, worn, and wethered.
That’s the sound of Pressure Machine, the seventh and latest studio album by the band. If all you know from The Killers is Hot Fuss or ‘When You Were Young’, or if the last time you checked in was just recently through Wonderful Wonderful and Imploding the Mirage, then Pressure Machine is going to sound like a significant left turn. And it’s a fantastic left turn.
The album’s central theme revolves around the smaller towns that the band, specifically singer Brandon Flowers, grew up on the mountainous West Coast of the United States. Just because we’ve known Flowers for two decades doesn’t mean he owes us anything, though. Flowers is a storyteller, and Pressure Machine shows the singer taking on the stories of those around his hometown in stark and often sepia-toned precision.
This is The Killer’s Nebraska. Since it’s still The Killers, that means there’s still synths and giant drums and Flowers still going for the gigantic choruses. Really it’s Nebraska meets Tunnel of Love, where bouncy pop can rub elbows with down and out stories of drugs, death, trains, factories, hunting, starting fires, drinking beer, and small-town true believers who understand that they’re stuck where they are forever.
But even though he’s not talking directly from first-person experience, the stories on Pressure Machine are still a window into the psyche of Flowers and how he still feels connected to the languid pace and open spaces of his youth. There to help guide him are guitarist Dave Keuning, making his full-fledged return to the group after a nearly five-year hiatus, and ever-present drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. Keuning’s touch on the new record is more subtle than his past guitar work, but it’s essential in returning The Killers to a more grounded centre of unity and cohesion. His lines here, while sparse, are not to be overlooked.
Also there to help guide the band are Jonathan Rado, leader of Foxygen and a talented producer in his own right, and Shawn Everett, who has worked with Alabam Shakes and Kacey Musgrove in his glittering career. Both of these musical whizzes helped bring Imploding the Mirage to sparkling life. The duo’s touch can be found in the soundscapes of the record, and Rado is a credited songwriter on all the album’s tracks, but everyone involved allows Flowers to drive the band into a darker, more personal, and more introspective space.
If you were cynical, you could compare what The Killers are doing, or what they’ve always been doing, to another new release this summer: Bleachers’ Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night. These are both clearly Springsteen-worshipping albums, and both artists have collaborated with The Boss in the past few months, with Bleachers taking the party-fun, ‘Sherry Darling’ half of The River and The Killers taking the suffocatingly dire, ‘Drive All Night’ other half.
But to do so would rob The Killers, and Bleachers too, of the phenomenal work that they’ve produced. If you’ve been put off by Flowers as a lyricist before, maybe certain lines about wondering if we’re humans or dancers or claiming to have soul without being a soldier, then you will be surprised by Pressure Machine. Flowers dispenses with the vague grandiosity and hones in on specific and beautifully detailed stories. It suits him well.
The sound created is unlike any other Killers album before it, but it’s intricate and captivating in equal measure. If all you want from the Killers is bombast, then Pressure Machine won’t fill your needs, but if you’re willing to take the band seriously as the heirs to Springsteen’s dichotomous balance of blue-collar defeatism and fist-pumping excitement, then there’s a lot to love.