Release Date: Sep 24, 2013
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
A mechanical bull usually conjures up images of a wild bachelorette party. And the title seems apt for the Followills, for whom the past few years have been the proverbial wild ride. Between marriages, rehab and grappling with sudden, delayed Stateside fame, the Kings have had their fair share of pressures to deal since their breakthrough a half decade ago.
The natural consequence of too much popularity can many times lead to misinterpretation. The Followill brothers have had to deal with this ever since they had a public meltdown at a show in Dallas in 2011, in which lead singer Caleb made his exhaustion audible due to having strained vocal chords. Such an event had them marked by new fans and naysayers alike as petulant brats who had somehow lost their way, as if some kind of voodoo was worked on them for having abandoned their southern twang beginnings.
In the ‘90s, after Metallica’s Black Album led to an explosion in Metallica’s mainstream popularity, the band was met with the obligatory accusations of selling out. Then-bassist Jason Newsted offered a candid response to those charges: “Yes, we sell out. Every seat in the house, every time we play.” Kings of Leon can relate. After all, the Followills spent years passing on opportunities to “sell out”, presumably by refusing to compromise their scruffy indie integrity; for instance, in 2007, just as their stock was ready to explode, they took a left turn by releasing Because of the Times, their noisiest, most-expansive album to date.
Kings of Leon hit it big in 2008 with their album Only by the Night and the accompanying one-two punch of singles "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody. " The success of those singles propelled them into the upper echelon of arena rock bands and found them at a crossroads between the post-punk-influenced sound of their previous albums and the anthemic, U2-influenced approach that they'd begun to explore on Only by the Night. Perhaps not surprisingly, the band's follow-up, 2010's Come Around Sundown, while by no means a disappointment, seemed strained, as if the band was trying too hard to balance its early sound with its later hits, all while digging even deeper into its Southern roots.
Following the band's lackluster 2010 release, Come Around Sundown, and singer Caleb Followill's stint in rehab, Kings of Leon seem to be deliberately staging Mechanical Bull as a comeback album. If it isn't the “comeback story of a lifetime” that the Followill brothers claim on “Comeback Story,” though, it does mostly halt Kings of Leon's seemingly inevitable movement toward unrelenting bombast while still managing to offer enough atmosphere to sound grandiose and anthemic. This is especially apparent during the vaguely misogynistic “Supersoaker” (“I don't mind/sentimental girls at times”), which appropriates the Strokesy riffs of their early work from the vantage point of arena rock, and “Family Tree,” a groovy faux-funk tune that comes complete with a full backing choir and handclaps.
Kings of Leon started out a decade ago as scraping, scrapping Southern garage-rockers, but they found their voice as the great American arena band of their generation – grasping toward U2 levels of spacious grandeur on songs like their 2008 hit "Use Somebody." Although their sixth album hardly feels like a comedown, or an apology, it's loose and down-to-earth; you can imagine them bashing it out in a shed, albeit a very large one. "Rock City" suggests T. Rex going down to Muscle Shoals, with grotty-glam swivel and Caleb Followill "looking for drugs" while evocatively advertising his ability to "shake it like a woman." It takes a true man to make that kind of boast.
In the tradition of titles like A Clockwork Orange, the Kings of Leon’s Mechanical Bull sums up the main ingredients of their new album in two words. “Mechanical,” of course, represents the technology any rock band needs from the guitars, amps, mics, drums, to control boards. “Bull” is the hard-charging organic creativity heard in the exuberant Springsteen-esque lead vocals of Caleb Followill and the polished musicianship of the rest of the band.
Kings Of Leon are the ex you can’t forget about. As relationships go, it started so well – all wild passion, snogging on scuzzy street corners and staying up all night playing each other your fave Creedence Clearwater Revival deep cuts. But things ended messily. They decided they were too mature for you, and started cracking onto the popular girls instead, the ones with shiny hair and perfect teeth.
Ten years on from their debut, the Kings of Leon might have finally located a little self-awareness buried under all the plaid, hair and discarded lingerie, or a funny bone. Otherwise, how to account for the title of their sixth album? Read one way, Kings of Leon's album title refers to the kind of bucking bronco you might rent for a party if you were a sweetheart of the rodeo, southern born and bred. Read another way, however, Mechanical Bull hands a load of ammunition to their critics.
You simply cannot fulfill all the stereotypes of being a World-Famous Rock Band without facing some kind of internal crisis, and so, between their 2011 tour and the recording of their sixth album, Mechanical Bull, Tennessee’s Kings of Leon moved one step closer to meeting expectations. Frontman Caleb Followill had been leading a messy personal life, fraught with alcoholism and self-doubt, which culminated in a notorious moment on that tour when he vomited while performing, ran backstage for a quick beer, and returned for three songs—only to then leave again and eventually cancel the remainder of their American dates. Breakup rumors obligatorily followed: Kings of Leon being comprised of three brothers and a cousin, we can imagine family ties tightened and caused problems on occasion.
With Kings of Leon’s sixth studio album, Mechanical Bull, the Followill boys wrap a collective fist around their Southern-fried rock, wind up and aim to throw it to legendary status. Unfortunately, they miss and it lands in the five-day-old dregs of a keg in an Anytown, USA backyard. Caleb swishes lyrics in his mouth like funky-flavored Listerine, perhaps an attempt to mask the blandness.
Mention Kings Of Leon in some circles, and there’s a standard answer you’re likely to hear - 'oh, I liked the first couple of albums, but then they went shit' - a statement seemingly aimed at distancing the speaker from any accusation that they might have ever drunkenly bellowed “Whoah, your sex is on fire!!!!” in a moment of weakness. If you’re willing to sidestep any such indie snobbery however, there’s plenty on all the band’s first four albums to enjoy, especially if you’re partial to an anthemic chorus or two. Their early rough edges might have been increasingly smoothed away in favour of stadium-straddling smoothness, but Because of the Times and Only By the Night still hold enough character to maintain interest throughout.
Kings of Leon want you to know they're a really cool rock band. How cool? On the track Don't Matter, Caleb Followill croons with try-hard punk bravado, "I can fuck or I can fight. It don't matter to me." A Stooges influence is palpable on the band's sixth album, their first since their 2011 hiatus, and there's a wannabe Queens of the Stone Age vibe penetrating the fretwork.
You can never be too sure about Kings of Leon. They often buy into a prescribed persona and become the characters they're meant to portray. When drummer Nathan Followill said in the lead-up to Mechanical Bull that the band had to "…go back to the blueprint of what we did on our first album," it's worth wondering if the record is an attempt by the Kings to gain back the indie cred they once flirted with or if they're straight up out of ideas.
You either like Caleb Followill’s singing or you don’t. For some, the Kings Of Leon frontman’s lived-in, scratchy twang adds a layer of emotional depth and soulfulness to the band’s otherwise highly polished songwriting; other people wish just he’d stop honking and yelping and wailing all over the place. It was fine when Kings Of Leon were a bunch of hard-drinkin’, ruckus-causin’, shaggy-haired whippersnappers from the Deep South, playing dirty garage-blues rock and looking delighted just to be out of Nashville.
With the self-deprecating suggestion in this comeback album’s title, this last-of-the-arena-rock-bands is perhaps admitting that its momentary reign as the US version of U2 is indeed over. Not that this Tennessee family foursome has entirely deflated its bombast, but after an on-stage crackup, major tour cancellation, and three-year hiatus, the three brothers and a cousin reconnect the dots of their career and interrelationships in an impressively catchy set of 11 songs. For one thing, they rely as much on the band’s secret weapon — its rhythm section — as on Caleb Followill’s drawling bellow, allowing a quick, sexy groove to build and shift from the Strokes-like rhythm guitar of the disc-opening lead single, “Supersoaker,” to the steamy Southern boogie of track seven, “Family Tree.
Kings of Leon Mechanical Bull (RCA) Now rolling into their second musical decade, the Followill clan has perfected its brand of Southern rock to the point of hook-laden arena anthems. Yet as 2010's Come Around Sundown demonstrated, they also revel in unraveling radio expectations even as they exploit them. The Nashville quartet's sixth LP finds the sweet spot.
Bands get exhausted just as often as people get exhausted from listening to them — you just hear about it less. So when Kings of Leon imploded, or took a hiatus, or merely went quiet after a tumultuous patch a couple of years back, it qualified as news, even though it really should have been ….
Kings of Leon are very good at being Kings of Leon. They’re brilliant at standing there, all hairy and sweaty and testosterone-y, smouldering on one hand, rocking with the other in a way only those from the southern states of America can. They’re all denim and checked shirts, part country twang, part biker bar.And Kings of Leon know this; ‘Mechanical Bull’ is almost comical in its levels of self-awareness, whether it’s the “I don’t know where I belong”message of ‘Rock City’ (no, really – they’re more the band from Almost Famous than ever before), the mid-paced stomp of ‘Temple’, or the boy-done-wrong themes of ‘Wait For Me’.
opinion byBENJI TAYLOR In the early days the Followills’ back-story seemed too good to be true, in a White Stripes “siblings” kind-of way… Three brothers and a cousin, a defrocked alcoholic Pentecostal father. Rock and roll histories didn't come much more interesting, and they backed it up with their solid synthesis of southern fried garage rock and roll that, though it was far from revolutionary, captured the sound of youthful intemperance in a way that few of their peers could muster. When did things start to go wrong for the Kings? A few incidents spring to mind - "Pigeongate", when the Followhills left the stage because they were worried that a bunch of flying rats would shit in their mouths.