Can Any Good Come Out of the Pressure Machine?

A Look at the Latest Album by the Killers and Its Compassionate Narration of Small Town Life.

Guest Contributor / 8.18.21

This article comes to us from Jared Jones:

The Killer’s most recent album (and their second in the last year!) is absolutely fantastic. I don’t ever write about music, but The Pressure Machine has the kind of brilliance that many reviewers will likely miss. Music reviews usually trade in the reviewer’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres, history, and theory. They use words like “sonic landscape” and oeuvre to contextualize and quantify the dynamism of artistic expression. I envy the sheer brilliance of it all, but I sometimes find that music reviews miss the point — as if there’s always something more that we should be listening to besides the songs themselves. Some hidden quality that only the critic may be privy to. Heaven forbid we simply enjoy a song we find to be poignant. So, I’m a little nervous about venturing into something close to an album review, but this profound and enjoyable album moved me to write about it.

Ok, that caveat out of the way, I am absolutely in love with this new Killer’s album, Pressure Machine. I’ve always loved the Killers. Sam’s Town came out when I was in college and still connects with me at a pretty deep, nostalgic level. This most recent effort, a series of vignettes about a small town in Utah, feels like Sam’s Town meets the podcast Shit Town. If Shit Town connected the elite world of New York Times podcast listeners with the life and suffering of small town Alabama, Pressure Machine connects us with Brandon Flowers’ hometown, Nephi, Utah.

In Pressure Machine, the town is the central character, and a complex character at that. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is in the second song on the album, “Quiet Town.” Flowers sings about small town living in all of its pastoral beauty (“In this quiet town, families are tight, good people who still don’t deadbolt their doors at night … In this quiet town, they know how to live, they lean on Jesus, are quick to forgive.”)

But he also doesn’t turn away from the dark side of working class, rural America, particularly how the opioid crisis has ravaged the people there. In one particularly stirring line he so perfectly captures the pathos of these “good people,” Flowers sings:

When we first heard opioid stories
they were always in whispering tones;
now banners of sorrow mark the front steps of childhood homes.
Parents wept through daddy’s girl eulogies
and merit badge milestones
with their daughters and sons
laying their lifeless in their suits and gowns
Looks like somebody’s been keeping secrets
In this quiet town.

Maybe it’s being a father, or maybe it’s a lack of sleep, but something about parents giving “daddy’s girl eulogies … with their daughters and sons laying their lifeless in their suits and gowns” absolutely leveled me. And this is I think one of the core elements of the Flowers’ work on the album: his compassion for all the people he grew up with.

These are not coastal elites and they aren’t political pundits. Far away from rancorous culture wars about debt ceilings and critical race theory, these are small town people trying to make a way in the world, finding that the world is uncaring, unkind, and merciless. Ultimately, what they have discovered in their small town is that they aren’t actually in control.

Nowhere is this more true or more theologically poignant than in the song “Desperate Things.” I’m being serious when I say that if someone set out to write a song about the “Bondage of the Will” I don’t think they could do better than what Flowers has perhaps stumbled upon in this song.

The verses center around a police officer’s relationship with a woman. In the first verse we find that she is being abused by her husband and when given the chance to turn her husband in she “laughs it off like lemonade.” Next, we realize that the police officer is having an affair with this woman,  he knows he shouldn’t but that doesn’t stop him. In the last verse, he takes his revenge on the woman’s drunk husband (I get strong hints that the police officer may kill him at the end of the song, but I don’t know. You let me know what you think).

Whether it’s the police officer, the abused woman, or even the drunk husband, the people being of the song are not in control of their lives. Instead, they are being operated on from something else beyond the will. They don’t have it in their capacity to change their circumstances, they don’t even have it in their capacity to see their circumstance as problematic! The chorus draws this out:

When you’re in love,
you can be blinded by your own heart
You’ll bend your own truth,
so twisted up, you could justify sin
And when people in love
are desperate enough
to abandon their dreams
People do desperate things

Because of their inner need for love and acceptance (i.e. a need for imputed righteousness), they are willing to do anything in order to get it, including put up with abuse, cheat on their spouse, or even take their anger into their own hands. And so they find themselves a slave to this love, not free to do the right thing, but bound in a futile effort to try to control their lives on their own terms. And the town is the same way, beautiful in its simplicity, but with a dark underbelly of death and drug addiction.

No one is free. This is life in the Pressure Machine.

And this is where the album begins to connect a small town in Utah with the rest of us. Whether you’re in Nephi or Manhattan, Main Street or Wall Street, we’re all in the pressure machine.

No one has life figured out, or has freed themselves from suffering and sin. We’re all in the midst of it, right now. We’re all slaves to our own loves, our psychoses, our baggage. We’re not in control of ourselves, much less anything else. And yet, we keep getting by. We keep waking up in the same towns and going through life anyways.

The last song on the album speaks to this, that we’re all just getting by. As Flowers sings in the chorus:

Maybe it’s the getting by that gets right underneath you
It’d swallow up your every step, boy, if it could
But maybe it’s the stuff it takes to get up
In the morning and put another day in, son
That holds you ’til the getting’s good

I’ve thought about it, maybe this gettin’ by is the real result of grace. Not that we gain more control over the circumstances of our lives, but that we find more and more ability to accept that we cannot control life (to borrow from the Serenity Prayer) and simply get up and go to work anyways.

Maybe all the small things we do … Going to work. Punching the clock. Bringing home a paycheck. Making dinner. Getting the kids to school. Visiting your aging mother in the nursing home. Mowing the grass. Again, and again, and again. Maybe all of these things are a witness to the fact that we don’t run the world. That we’re merely creatures in the world, living very creaturely lives. Lives filled with real love, real dreams, real hopes, and also real pain, real loss, and real sin. And we’re all just trying to make our way through it all and hoping we can come out in one piece on the other side.

But that does leave us with a question. What real hope is there for those in the Pressure Machine? What hope is there for bound wills? What hope is there for those who are just getting by, hoping they can hold on “till the getting’s good”?

Fine enough to say that we can just get up and keep “getting by,” but people can only do that if they have some kind of hope that there’s something better coming along the way. Something beyond our control or ability to hasten its arrival, but something true and imminent nonetheless.

I was reminded this week that it was in the small fishing town of Capernaum — not Athens, not Rome, not even Jersualem, but “a quiet town” — where Jesus came to teach in John 6.

And it was here in this little tiny town, filled with working class people. People who knew they were not in control, but nevertheless had a deep hunger for love and acceptance, a deep need for righteousness, a need for life itself, a need for hope. It was to these people that Jesus came and compared himself to something as tasteless and necessary as bread. Someone who helps with the getting’ by. Someone who leads the lost souls of small towns and downtowns into an eternal home.