Pressure Machine - The Killers in the US Heartland
If you had to think about what sonic tones/sounds you would hear when a new Killers album kicked off you could tick off a list comprising any or all of the following:
A monstrous drum track,
A stab of 80's style synthesiser (take your pick anything from The Cars to Duran Duran to Bronski Beat),
A loud flat picked bass,
Some dirty but faceless and often unmemorable guitar lines ,
With all the above wrapped around the Meatloaf yelp from front man/main man Brandon Flowers.
Where you wouldn't be headed is a spoken word field recording followed by acoustic piano, mandolin and violin . Yet this is what we get within the first 30 secs of track 1 West Hills from the new Killers album Pressure Machine. Deviating further from the expected script Flowers kicks in with a low baritone rumble:
I was born right here in Zion
God's own son
The Holy ghost stories and bloodshed
Never scared me none
It's initially disconcerting, as your familiar, comfortable Killers listening expectation has shifted way off course. It's apparent something new is going on here. The West Hills continues with a "hillbilly heroin pills" tale about a character messing with demons accompanied by a stirring string score bringing the song to a grand conclusion 5 mins later.
Perhaps it isn't that surprising as tales of the American heartland were alluded to in Sam's Town, the follow up to the Killers debut album Hot Fuss. However , sonically the stadium was still beckoning in the production , which at that time was handled by a team familiar with handling U2 style bombast. More recently we also had largely overlooked Land of the Free single from a couple of years back.
With Pressure Machine we are in full organic music mode , Flowers has largely put away the synths (though there are treatments that are there , reminders of Bruce Springsteen's "dark clouds" philosophy with keyboards in the background), it seems Ronnie Vannucci on drums has put away his usual rock god drum kit and, perhaps most surprising the entire, original 4 x piece Killers line-up has reunited This may be good news but is unnecessary as Flowers is the undisputed leader here. Indeed with Ronnie's drums laid back in the mix along with Mark Stoermer's bass it leaves more space for Flowers. And in Dave Keuning, The Killers have always lacked a distinctive guitar voice. You wonder what Flowers would have given over the years for a Johnny Marr or Lindsey Buckingham as full time members of the band and how the recorded output may have improved.
Lyrically, this is the most descriptive and most socially conscious Flowers has ever been. It really is a new stage in his evolution as a songwriter. Though many will be quick to point Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, it is closer to John Mellencamps coming of age album Scarecrow . Witness track 2, Quiet Town and compare to Mellancamps Small Town "I was born in a small town and I live in a small town, probably die in a small town" etc). They could almost be one piece, except Flowers goes 3rd person .
A couple of kids got hit by a Union Pacific train
Carrying sheet metal and household appliances through the pouring rain
Later on as with the West Hills the drug problem in middle America makes a reappearance
When we first heard opioid stories
They were always in whispering tones
Now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes
On Runaway Horses we have a gentle acoustic picked number that could easily have been lifted from Tom Petty's Wildflowers album :
Small town girl
Coca-Cola grin, honeysuckle skin
Born beneath the ruddy sign
Of a strawberry moon
Flowers runs a balancing act here, there are many biblical references but it is no more than what Springsteen was doing to in his prime. In the Boss's case it was from his Catholic upbringing, with Flowers he has the whole Jehovah's Witness thing . It isn't overt or off putting as someone with even a passing knowledge of the US of A knows how much religion plays a part in much of the American psyche . With the Killers catalogue it only got uncomfortable once - On the Wonderful Wonderful album with the Woody Harrison preach at the start of "The Calling". However in concert Flowers was sending this up by donning a gold mirror suit and going all Elvis with much irony.
Back to the album and on the great "In The Car Outside"
We got a place with a fence and a little grass
I put this film on the windows, and it looks like chapel glass
But when she turns, it's like the shadow of the cross don't cast
No blessin' over our lonely life
It's like waiting for a train to pass, I don't know when it'll pass
It seems to be a trend this year for the return of the album as a thematically linked piece (other favourites in 2021 have been The Coral with Coral Island and the great Peter Case with The Midnight Broadcast. Its a great trend. And must be satisfying artistically particular in an age of of streaming and playlists,. With Pressure Machine every track is linked by a spoken word piece.
Even though not the last song on the album the title cut "Pressure Machine" sums it all up nicely. Flowers sounds tired as he inhabits a character working hard trying to keep his family and life together and wondering how hard it has to be.
I, I don't remember the last time you asked how I was
Don't you feel the time slipping away?
It ain't funny at all
It's gonna break your heart one day
On first listening you wonder who the gorgeous voice duetting with Flowers is on the chorus , then you realise it is Flowers himself overdubbing with his best Roy Orbison falsetto . There is no doubt Flower already was in possession of one of the finest voices to emerge in the last 20 years and could sing just about anything.
Finishing off this fine collection of songs is a 12 x string lead "The Getting By" , a three chord weary tale of the daily grind of getting up, going to work, coming home and just ...getting by...With the harmonies and acoustic strumming we could be in Fleet Foxes territory and this is no bad thing.
Two albums back Brandon Flowers was struggling with the whole notion of what it was all about wrapped up in the final track on Wonderful Wonderful "Have all the Songs Been Written" (featuring another guitar hero Mark Knopfler). Over the course of the latest Killers effort you would have to answer with an emphatic "no". This is a bold direction for The Killers Inc ;when I saw them in 2018 they opened with "Mr Brightside" as the set list opener and no house lights. The crowd predictably went ape sh*t but "Mr Brightside" Pressure Machine isn't . I can't see this appealing to that crowd or even getting any new fans this far into their career but as an artistic statement Pressure Machine is the best thing the Killers and Brandon Flowers have ever done.