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Lockdown and the pandemic caused the world to slow down. For musicians, this led to a crisis of uncertainty, with touring and promotion dishearteningly stifled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way The Killers’ 2020 Imploding the Mirage tour and rollout dissolved as the year unfolded. A period of reflection, and change in direction, seem to have resulted in a record that captures the zeitgeist of the last year.

On Pressure Machine, The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers used his hometown of Nephi, Utah, to create a snapshot of rural American life using fractured glimpses into an often-caricatured demographic. Blue-collar working-class voters have been largely ridiculed, with the communities labelled as xenophobic and close-minded, particularly since the 2016 US election. What conventional narratives forget is that behind every voter is a person. The categorisation of 74,216,154 people (Trump’s 2020 electorate) is carried out sweepingly, as we forget the face behind every figure. This record humanises a small town in a way that challenges this generalised commentary.  

In fairness, The Killers have sung before about the American political system - look no further than their 2016 banger “Run for Cover”, which explores a senator obsessed with power. Then, the second verse shifts the perspective to the unnamed senator’s wife; it appears Flowers enjoys championing the silent, with this hit being a microcosm of the new record.

The Killers' 2016 single addresses domestic violence in a political scandal

What makes Pressure Machine different is the resignation into quieter reflection. Before the release of the album, it became clear that the band was trying something different. Instead of the traditional pre-album singles, Pressure Machine was preceded only by an album cover, a track list, and some snippets posted onto the band's social media. In this sense, the pre-release very much mirrored the record: humbled, hushed, and a change of direction.

"Whilst a story can only be told so many times, The Killers find innovative ways to approach this storytelling"

Beginning the album with a voice recording, the cinematic feel of the album is epitomised through dialogue. Praising her “nice, small community”, the first snippet from a 26-year-old woman is characterised by love for her local surroundings. Followed by a haunting piano, “West Hills” instantly creates a sober and retrospective tone. Sonically, this hearkens back to records such as The National’s Sleep Well Beast and Taylor Swift’s own pandemic reflective folklore. Popular music appears to increasingly be following a growing trend of stripped back production. Whilst a story can only be told so many times, The Killers find innovative ways to approach this storytelling. The heart-breaking plot on “Runaway Horses”, for example, exemplifies what makes the sense of community on the album so potent. I found myself emotionally attached to a girl and horse I have never met.

Despite being consistent, at times the album suffers from tracks feeling too similar. At 51 minutes long, the band could have easily shortened the album down to create a more compelling project. It is worth noting that the band released an abridged version that removes the spoken-word passages in order to tailor the album towards streaming platforms. Despite its length, the traditional The Killers spark is present. Take, for example, the fuzzy guitar in “Cody” - it is a far cry from their signature smash hit “Mr Brightside”, but by not releasing a lead single, The Killers made it apparent they wanted to alter their release strategy. Unlike previous albums, this record is not eclipsed by one single.

The dark "Desperate Things" is a highlight on the new record

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Amidst Pressure Machine’s track list, the clear stand-out is “Desperate Things”. From its fraught guitar and ghostly vocals to the chilling story, the song is a vignette of Pressure Machine’s excellence. The track is captivating from beginning to end, between the image of the anonymous ‘she’, who in five minutes becomes vivid and complex, to the sensational intensity of an instrumental that sounds like a falling car. The song benefits from a strange pensiveness, creating a sense of distance and detachment through which the story is told. It feels that fate is sealed; the singer is just as much an observer as us. Telling a story of abuse, lust and murder, this track has all the traits of a Netflix drama-series.

Pressure Machine may not be the perfect ‘lockdown album’. Yet, their engagements with rural life and efforts in reshaping narratives are an admirable effort, and an impressive change of direction. Though the record may sometimes feel sonically stagnant, its commitment to storytelling makes for an emotionally engaging listen.