The gentlemen Followill are back with their first full-length release since 2010’s Come Around Sundown. Mechanical Bull is a statement to fans and critics—while KOL neared rock royalty after their explosion in 2008 and were subsequently thrashed for their retreat to the mainstream in 2010, they aren’t leaving the way they came in. KOL’s newest LP offers redemption to a band crushed by lofty expectations, without succumbing to stifling critical scrutiny.
Kings of Leon have been more or less unapologetically ‘unique’ during their tenure—sometimes to an ironic extent, quarreling with their label over everything from beats and chords, to album titles and even haircuts. While Only by the Night was a noted divergence from the rough and raw adolescent confessional that was Youth and Young Manhood or the alcohol-induced southern rock ballads of Because of the Times, it retained the distinctive, abrasive Kings of Leon flair, especially prominent in songs like “I Want You”. Come Around Sundown, however, was an album that any rock band currently producing music could have written. Though some tracks, like “Radioactive”, were strong enough to win over listeners and garner air time, as a whole the album was uninspired, flat–like making a BLT and then realizing you only have lettuce.
Mechanical Bull still harbours traces of Come Around Sundown’s sonic direction, but manages to fulfill the promise that Only by the Night left. For better or for worse, every song retains a distinct KOL edge. It is a collection of sounds and experiences amassed over the course of their career to this point, and the eventual piecemeal project goes down smooth—the best elements from their entire catalogue have been melted down and re-caste to create something larger than the sum of their parts.
The inaugural track, “Supersoaker”, is engrossing—setting the hook with its charming melody before Caleb’s perfectly unpolished yowl reels it in. Lyrically the song picks up where Only by the Night left us, serving as a substitute to Come Around Sundown, rather than a sequel in that regard. Mechanical Bull is intelligent, but true to the identity that the Kings have built for themselves, layering political and social criticisms into poignant and dangerously catchy songs: “Cause I’m the supersoaker, red white and blew ‘em all away / With the kisses unclean as the words that you say”.
If “Supersoaker” is the procession of the triumphant return then “Rock City” is the self-reflexive, romanticized analysis of the fall. And thus, if “Supersoaker” is the social commentary, “Rock City” is the mournful, introspective one. Backed by a jazz influenced swing beat, Caleb croons that he “was running through the desert / …searching for drugs” and a wasteland of vice before circling back to Rock City–I should also mention that this track absolutely rocks. Each refrain builds in force, with multi-layered, dynamic guitar melodies and solos punctured by the thumping, tom-driven groove that drummer Nathan settles into.
And then “Don’t Matter” hits—a heavy, rhythm-driven resolution to our story. Fit for a bank robbery car chase, the track bursts with “Charmer”-like arrogance, marching without stopping from the opening chord to the last guttural “ughn” ejected from Caleb’s lips. It’s a fight song, a drag race ballad, and ultimately a brilliant, loose-lipped and loose-limbed, danceable rock track. And we’re only at track three.
“Beautiful War” is a love song the only way the Followill boys know how—with allusions to bombs and guns, and questionable annunciation that is sure to raise some eyebrows. At the same time, it oozes the grandiose arena-rock style that catapulted KOL to fame. Meanwhile “Temple” explicitly voices the Followill love mantra: “I take one on the temple / I take one for you”. It’s bar rock, fight music and love poetry, and while it’s housed in a slightly cheesy package, it still manages to connect instead of alienate.
What makes Mechanical Bull a better album is that even the weakest moments manage to remain true to the Kings of Leon ethos—some songs may not resonate as strongly as fans hoped pre-release, but it’s not because the band has checked out, rather because it’s nearly impossible to write a flawless album. “Comeback Story” for example hopelessly wails “I walked a mile in your shoes / and now I’m a mile away”, but follows up closely with sly KOL down-south insight–“I’m a mile away / and I’ve got your shoes”.
Moreover, even the most lyrically tired tracks like “Wait for Me” still produce the nostalgic, weighty emotions of past tracks like “Manhattan” or “Arizona”. This owes much to the sophistication and variation in the music being played. The album achieves a sense of cohesion without repetition, blending rock, jazz, and blues, perhaps most apparent in “Family Tree”–potentially the best song on the album. Its grooving, 70s rhythm can be described as nothing else but sexy…well, perhaps infectious…but still sexy nonetheless. With elicit, forbidden fruit undertones the song captivates and coerces, and leaves you feeling dirty and compromised—in the best way possible.
While Mechanical Bull has some disappointing moments (I often wonder if the band realizes that “I take one on the temple…for you” and “I take one on the chin for you my friend” appear on the same album), the album as a whole is inventive and inspired. Though Come Around Sundown may have been underwhelming, it was a perfect precursor to the new direction that Kings of Leon have grown into. Mechanical Bull is like the first relationship after a long and uncomfortable battle with puberty—now handsome, refined, and comfortable inside their skin, the Kings of Leon are aware of and bravely flaunt their many idiosyncratic facets. Mechanical Bull provides the first album that new and old fans alike can enter feeling mutually excited about and completely unsettled by at the same time. The album is an ambitious blend of new and old, like 100-year-old scotch and Vanilla Coke—new fans will be pleasantly surprised by the bite of old-school tracks like “Don’t Matter”, and old fans, however reluctant to admit it, will indulge the new silky smooth coating accompanying songs like “Rock City”, and “Family Tree”.
Mechanical Bull bucks 7.5 drunk bar-goers out of 10
*Amendment* – After some careful deliberation, conversation and a few more listens I’ve decided to amend my earlier score. I think that the review in it’s current state warrants a score anywhere between 75 – 79 (7.9 being the original score), but 7.5 was the score I had originally given it before changing my mind the moment before publishing. If you have any questions about why I changed the score I’d be happy to answer them. Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you. The biggest reason was to maintain consistency in scoring. Hesitation Marks was awarded a 7.5 and I don’t believe Mechanical Bull to be a better album, though I don’t think it’s necessarily worse. They’re entirely different, but provided me the a similar listening experience.
My inability to concretely score the album I think speaks to its polarizing nature, and even the polarized styles within the album itself. Listen to the first four tracks and you’ll realize how jarring some of the stylistic shifts can be. They’re aren’t necessarily songs that jar you because they’re bad, just diametrically opposed to those songs that came before.
- The Night That Tore the Kings of Leon Apart (rollingstone.com)
- Kings Of Leon – ‘Mechanical Bull’ – Album Review (lucasfothergill.wordpress.com)
- Video: Kings Of Leon – Supersoaker (thesweetuniverse.com)