The Killers – Pressure Machine
Americana | Indie Rock
Though people love to throw around the term “genre-defying” like it’s some golden virtue, the truth is that genres serve an important role; namely painting a picture of what to expect when pressing play on an album. Most of us like to have at least some idea of what we’re getting in to, and if you add a descriptor like ‘punk’ or ‘folk’ then most everyone will be on the same page. But not every subgenre is so clear cut, some are far more nebulous and open to interpretation, perhaps none more so than ‘Americana’. It’s so subjective that it almost defeats its own purpose, as different people will associate it with vastly different styles. Some picture dreamy bittersweet synthscapes while others think first of the warm glow of lap steel or vintage organ. Some imagine soaring solos and emphatic choruses while others will turn their thoughts instead to austere acoustic arrangements. Many are pretty open minded about where the music draws inspiration from, and instead focus more on the message behind it, but even here there are deeply contrasting approaches. Some romanticise the freedom of tearing down the open road towards whatever waits beyond the horizon, while others paint a more stark portrait of people just barely scraping by.
Unable to tour the arena-ready grandeur of last year’s Imploding The Mirage, The Killers instead turned their efforts towards crafting an introspective concept album centred on Brandon Flowers’ childhood hometown of Nelphi, Utah, and in doing so somehow managed to make a quintessential Americana record. No matter what your takeaway is from that word, odds are you will find something here to your liking. Near enough every facet is represented, every thread you pull has a pay-off waiting at the other end.
The epic opening track ‘West Hills’ is a stunning slow burner that unfurls gradually to maintain a buzz of anticipation, like electricity in the air, as it grows from a rustic twang of mandolin into something that roars and rumbles like thunder. ‘Quiet Town’ boasts bright 80s melodies, a very charming and infectious shifting chorus, and some surprisingly earnest harmonica that all told evokes Springsteen at his pinnacle. The sombre acoustic storytelling of ‘Terrible Thing’ is immediately reminiscent of Neil Young, the strings and lap steel on the title track lend it an air of bittersweet elegance, ‘Desperate Things’ offers up a dreamy expanse with all the eerie beauty of empty streets in the dead of night, while the subtle hints of country charm on closing track ‘The Getting By’ give way to some gorgeous harmonies.
Pulling yourself in so many different directions and trying to please everyone could quite easily make the album come off as disjointed and disingenuous, but Pressure Machine feels a world away from either of those shortcomings thanks to its unifying concept. It’s an ever-shifting character study of the citizens of the town, drawing from Brandon’s own memories, passing rumours, and conversations, with every track interlaced with snippets of interviews with the townsfolk. The stories are heartfelt, at times harrowing, and their delivery very down-to-Earth. Anyone familiar with small town life, or even just the feeling of telling yourself “I’ve just gotta get through this week and then things will start picking up…”, will see their own experiences reflected. Albeit, not in a comforting way; instead preferring to shine a light into the dimly lit corners of your life that you’d rather not think about. It’s easy to look at the glitz and glamour of previous records and expect something insincere, but the lyricism really shines here, drawing from an untapped well of empathy and maturity.
The shifting styles fit perfectly as everyone stuck in the doldrums of some nowhere town is facing their own demons beneath the surface, and each of them are left finding their own ways to cope. ‘West Hills’ and ‘Cody’ share the story of those straining against the chains and rebelling through drink, drugs and petty crime to bask in whatever meagre escape they can, while ‘In The Car Outside’ speaks of a marriage falling apart (“She’s got this thing where she puts the walls so high, It doesn’t matter how much you love, It doesn’t matter how hard you try”). ‘The Getting By’ tells of a diminishing faith that all the hard work will be worth it in the end, and that there’s a way out somewhere down the line (“I know some who’ve never seen the ocean, Or set one foot on a velvet bed of sand, But they’ve got their treasure laying way up high, Where there might be many mansions, But when I look up, all I see is sky“), while on ‘Desperate Things’ the band offer their own take on a Nick Cave style murder ballad with a tale of a cop falling for a victim of domestic abuse. Most striking of all however is the plight of a closeted teen contemplating escape through more tragic and permanent means on ‘Terrible Thing’, with the sparse arrangement adding a heart-rending air of finality to lines like “Round here, we all take up our cross and hang on His holy name, But the cards that I was dealt will get you thrown out of the game“.
The past couple of years have deepened the cracks of society substantially, and life in those dead-end towns seems further than ever from the silver lining that everyone is holding out for. After a while “the getting by” starts to feel less like holding out for the pay-off and more like delaying the inevitable. Pressure Machine might well be the most prescient record of the year in this respect. Not only does the album eschew “genre-bending” for the far more covetous title of “genre-defining”, it also does a superb job of capturing the zeitgeist. In these past couple of years, what with this record and Imploding The Mirage, The Killers have experienced a real renaissance, the likes of which I don’t think anyone saw coming. They’ve shown a new level of depth, maturity and ambition, and Pressure Machine stands as the jewel in their crown.