The Killers Sleepwalk Through Pressure Machine, Their Latest Attempt to Capture Springsteen Magic
Brandon Flowers & Company return to his childhood and hometown in their folk-rock turn
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Throughout Bruce Springsteen’s storied career, New Jersey’s favorite son has always looked to the quiet when in need of a change in his sound.
In the early eighties, after a streak of white-hot records, Springsteen surprised everyone with the hushed heartland reflections on Nebraska. After the success of the E-Street double album The River, he submitted the demos for the project, this time rolling solo with only a guitar and harmonica in tow.
Nebraska caught everyone off guard at the time but has aged incredibly well, a quiet masterpiece in a discography of arena rock. Following the tepid response to Human Touch and Lucky Town in the mid-nineties, Springsteen went introspective again with the criminally underrated The Ghost of Tom Joad. It didn’t fit in with everything else in the decade and unfairly ranks in his lower efforts with critics.
In 2002, Springsteen was back on top with the E-Street Band-backed The Rising, an album of 9/11 themes. True to his form, the follow-up Devils & Dust would question the midpoint of the Bush Jr. presidency in another quiet outing.
Although in a different format, Springsteen is currently in one of the cycles with his covid interrupted solo Broadway residency.
So when The Killers spoke of their next album being a reflective folk turn inspired by Nebraska, my interest piqued. As fellow worshippers at The Altar of The Boss, the band looked to Springsteen for inspiration throughout their career, but never his quieter outings.
After multiple listens, though, I’m pretty disappointed in Pressure Machine, especially after it seemed as if the band had refound their footing on last year’s Imploding the Mirage. But that’s also on par for my relationship with The Killers, which usually files under “complicated.”
Their mega-hit debut Hot Fuss was released during the summer after my high school graduation, and I immediately connected with its glam camp that explored the new wave sounds of the eighties. “Mr. Brightside” and, “Somebody Told Me” were played at every college party and club for the next few years.
When the band took their first Springsteen turn on 2006’s Sam’s Town, I was along for the ride. Replacing the setting of New Jersey with Vegas worked perfectly, and it’s still my favorite album by The Killers. For the next decade, though, their releases did absolutely nothing for me as they took a corny turn in an era defined by the question “are we human or are we dancers?”.
In 2015, singer and leader Brandon Flowers released his second solo album, The Desired Effect, which found him revisiting the new wave eighties and sounding free of expectations. If you missed it, I recommend giving it a listen - most days, I think it’s the best thing Flowers has done, Killers or not. While I don’t revisit Hot Fuss or Sam’s Town often, The Desired Effect remains in regular rotation.
Last year, The Killers went whole heartland rock when they hired Shawn Everett, producer for The War on Drugs, for Imploding the Mirage. Mastering gripes aside, I thought the band (now mostly a duo of Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.) put out a solid record full of their best songs since Sam’s Town.
Without the option to tour over the last year, The Killers decided to take the most drastic approach to their sound yet with the recording of Pressure Machine. With guitarist Dave Kuening and bassist Mark Stoermer returning, this record should be a layup.
Instead, Pressure Machine is an absolute slog to get through. For inspiration, Flowers looks to his hometown of Nephi, Utah, singing about that blue-collar struggle, opioids, suicide, religion, and general small-town life. The issue is that we’ve heard all of these stories a million times before in music, and none of The Killers’ takes on these subjects stand above or equal to what isn’t already out there.
The most noticeable part of the record is the interviews with Nephi locals that play throughout the album. It’s a neat idea to set the stage for the album, but there are lengthy clips in between almost every song. I’m open to this kind of stuff at the beginning and end of an album, but Pressure Machine plays out like Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga on steroids. The vignettes are a distraction from the actual work.
The first half of the record never really moves out of first gear. Opener “West Hills” surprises with its mandolin and violin, but the following songs never move past this. “Quiet Town” is a standard effort from The Killers with acoustic guitar filling in for their usual dancefloor fillers, while “Terrible Thing” is the closest the band gets to reaching Nebraska status.
The brushed snares and tambourine of “Sleepwalker” is the best song on here as it successfully mixes the folk-rock aspirations with Flowers’ ear for a perfect synth melody. At the same time, though, the record should have been named after this song as it’s an apt title for how the album plays out.
Elsewhere, the overused metaphor of “Runaway Horses” features the sleepy vocals of Phoebe Bridgers and runs in one ear and out the other without any staying power.
Things pick up a bit in the back half with “In The Car Outside” and “In Another Life” and the title track is another one of the few highlights here, but the last few songs on Pressure Machine float by without demanding any attention.
I commend the band for taking a chance, especially this late into their career, but the execution as a whole doesn’t work, and Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad this is not. Maybe I’m just having a hard time connecting with the subject matter or the unreliable narrator in Flowers who is so far removed from the small town struggle.
Pressure Machine is available now on EMI / Island records.