If you’re familiar with the American band The Killers, it could be due to their popular ballad “Mr. Brightside,” which just might be the “Sweet Caroline” of the millennial generation. Their debut album, Hot Fuss, was the anthem of my college days, and Sam’s Town from 2006 was another musical triumph. Their new release, Pressure Machine, ends a recent cycle of hit-or-miss albums. Musically, it’s the strongest and most cohesive album since Sam’s Town, and lyrically, it has a poetic maturity that moves well beyond its predecessors. Pressure Machine is a heartbreaking album with moving themes woven throughout to highlight the struggles of small-town life in America and disenchantment with faith.
The Killers frontman, Brandon Flowers, was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this new album is the most Christ-haunted of all his releases. The reality of sin, God’s redeeming grace, wrestling with a loss of faith, feeling abandoned by God—Pressure Machine isn’t afraid to address the hard stuff.
This album is deeply anchored in a sense of place; musically, it draws on Americana, country, and folk traditions. Because it’s informed by Flowers’ personal experiences growing up in Payson and Nephi, Utah, it avoids falling into romanticism or some condescending voyeurism of working-class America. Pressure Machine paints a picture of a “quiet town / Good people who lean on Jesus / they’re quick to forgive” but also a “barbed-wire town of barbed-wire dreams.” You get that sense that these are complicated people and places that Flowers knows and loves as he reflects on “Green ribbon front doors, dishwater days / This whole town is tied to the torso of God’s mysterious ways.”
Flowers’ songwriting has always been distinguished by his powerful storytelling. In Pressure Machine, he explores the devastation of the opioid epidemic, the weariness of the working class, isolation and suicidal thoughts, tragic deaths, adultery, and domestic abuse. “In Another Life” follows the musings of a husband who faces his crippling insecurities in his marriage (“Am I the man of your desire or just a guy from your hometown?”) while “West Hills” follows a man convicted of drug possession who nonetheless leans on the mercy of God—reminiscent of a character you might find in a Flannery O’Connor short story. “Desperate Things” is about a police officer trying to rescue a woman from an abusive husband, getting entangled in a complicated relationship, and then trying to justify his adultery. “Quiet Town” tells the story of a young couple tragically killed by a train. But while it explores painful realities, Pressure Machine also reaches out for hope. It highlights how American Christianity has twisted itself up with the failed American dream, but it also seeks to imagine how we can hang onto faith.
Flowers’ exploration of faith and use of religious imagery, while not uncritical of American Christianity, is never dismissive. The album paints a picture of people “waiting for the miracle to come / Pour down the mountain like a heaven-fed stream” but also reaching for everything that cannot truly satisfy in the meantime: “Everyone around here is just trying to escape something.” “Cody” chronicles the myriad ways we can seek fulfillment and walk away empty, including openly rejecting faith: “And Cody says he didn’t raise the dead / Says religion’s just a trick / To keep hard-working folks in line / He says it makes his stomach sick.” But the same song seems to ask, as the disciples did of Jesus: “To whom will we go?” Flowers sings, “Who’s gonna carry us away? / Eagles with glory-painted wings?” It seems we are still in need of a savior.
“In the Car Outside” voices disenchantment with the promises of the American dream. Despite having “a place with a fence and a little grass,” there is isolation in the family and the fear of abandonment by God: “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 blеssing over our lonely life / It’s like waiting for a train to pass and I don’t know when it’ll pass.”
This imagery of the train permeates the album, its whistle perhaps representing the siren song of dreams far beyond small-town life.
As a whole, Pressure Machine bears a sense of weariness that is all too relatable in the present moment. But it’s not all doom and gloom. “Sleepwalker” and “Runaway Horses” stand out as beautiful tributes to hope and wonder in a dark world. One of the most poignant songs, “The Getting By,” is about disillusionment with the promises of the prosperity gospel: “You know I believe in the Son, I ain’t no backslider / But my people were told they’d prosper in this land.”
As millennials, The Killers are part of a generation for whom American economic prosperity didn’t pan out. When our religious hopes are strangely intertwined with promises of the American dream, we are faced with a painful sense of betrayal. Pressure Machine wrestles with these problems in good faith, and the result is a brilliant and thought-provoking story that gets to the heart of small-town America.