With Mechanical Bull, American rockers Kings of Leon may have moved on to a more sophisticated, acquired sound, but sadly fail to scale the heights of their previous records.
Kings of Leon’s career so far has actually been a rather odd one. After a trio of critically acclaimed records that largely eluded the masses, they made the crossover to the mainstream in spectacular fashion with 2008’s Only By The Night, before retreating in horror from their stadium-filling success with the quieter, safer, and blander follow-up Come Around Sundown. The lurch from the world-dominating sound of ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ to the altogether more tepid ‘Pyro’ and ‘Back Down South’ (me neither) was quite a sudden one, so in the run up to the release of their latest effort Mechanical Bull, the question on most people’s minds has been one of direction. Now that the dust from their previous successes has settled, will they return to the incendiary energy of their earlier work, or continue down the road towards a calmer, more comfortable sound?
The answer, sadly, is the latter. On Mechanical Bull, the Followill boys have continued to create undemanding and quickly forgettable music; songs which, though entirely agreeable, never achieve anything more than that. The mood here is chirpier than Only by the Night and the tempo has upped since their previous effort, but the effect is ultimately a lazy slide into an uninspiring middle ground. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with a once-ravenous band slowing things down as they get older, and no one would expect the group to recapture the energy of ‘Red Morning Light’ or ‘Razz’ ten years on from their first album. But they’ve proven they can do slower, more emotional stuff brilliantly before (‘Sex On Fire’ is, after all, a good example), and Mechanical Bull, with a couple of exceptions, fails to deliver the goods.
Musically, it doesn’t stray far from the atmosphere of recent Kings albums; tracks like lead single ‘Supersoaker’ stick to a familiar formula of ringing guitar lines and insistent drumming, whereas slower numbers like ‘Beautiful War’ let sparser backing gradually build up around Caleb Followill’s familiar warble. But fans of the group’s earlier work will find the sort of nuance that made songs like ‘Soft’ and ‘Trunk’ so compelling to be completely absent; those who got on board with the massive singles from Only by the Night won’t find anything nearly as gripping or memorable here.
The lyrics have also taken a turn for the worse. Back when the group were caught up in all the usual intrigues of up-and-coming rock bands (lots of whiskey, lots of cocaine, lots of groupies), Caleb’s lyrics – in turns ecstatic and deeply pained – seemed brutally authentic, disclosing and concealing in equal measure with a dark suggestiveness. On Mechanical Bull, they’re often limp and unconvincing, at best tolerable and at worst frankly awful. ‘Rock City’ begins “I was running through the desert/I was looking for drugs/And I was searching for a woman/Who was willing to love”. On ‘Comeback Story’ he actually sings, against an emotionally-charged backdrop of soaring guitars, “I walk a mile in your shoes/And now I’m a mile away/And I’ve got your shoes.” Seriously.
The overall impression you get from the record is that this is a band whose music has been neutered. Whether it was the dirty excess of their first three albums or the measured euphoria of their fourth that got you, you’ll find little to really engage with on Mechanical Bull. This isn’t terrible music by any means; indeed, it’s the sort of thing you’d probably find yourself nodding your head to if it came on while you were walking around HMV or the Co-Op or something. But that says it all: this is mediocre music, and it’s incredibly disheartening to hear a band that was once so exciting become the dad-rockers of tomorrow.