When listening to Kings Leon, regardless of what period in their career the music has been released, whether it is the whiskey soaked, rugged rawness of their debut or the scarred, eerie reinvention of Because of the Times or their more recent forays into stadium sized bombast, I feel one of two very distinct emotions: overwhelming sadness or massive annoyance. A band I once championed, once thought could be great, once drew so much unbridled joy for, now only make me feel negative emotions. And even more frustrating, is that I feel it even when I listen to their most brilliant output. The thing is, I either feel hugely disappointed and cheated as I listen to some of their most drastic and lazy work, or I feel upset that they show no sign of ever reaching the heights they once clambered to.
However, along comes Mechanical Bull, their sixth record with so much promise. There are the murmurings of a back to basics approach, back to their youth, back to the rough and ready fun of days of old. Gone is the golden hewed travel agent cover of Come Around Sundown, and is replaced by a dilapidated, seedy Southern sinkhole, not too far removed from the debauchery of old songs like “Joe’s Head” or “Molly’s Chambers”. Then there was the first single, “Supersoaker”, a bright and breezy opener which couldn’t be more Aha Shake Heartbreak if it tried, even if the polished production of recent times remains. And even though it seems too much like a deliberate attempt at quelling the rumble of aggrieved voices to do any good, it is pleasant enough to accept and to cling onto as a sign.
It is with a heavy heart that I come to you to say that the Followill family have not rekindled the flame; they have not recaptured the love that they have so desperately lost, at least from me. Mechanical Bull is full of teasing reminders and lost opportunities and ultimately falls down as a huge disappointment.
Firstly, the good things should be noted. “Rock City” flies by as an album highlight with its catchy melody and hand drums and clapping, with a sort of Tom Petty air to it. “Family Tree” continues the funky bassline adoration that Jared has somehow latched onto since “Pony Up” (one of the few highlights on Come Around Sundown). “Tonight” is a fairly plodding attempt at sweeping arena rock tune (something which the Kings are no longer strangers to sadly) but there is an instrumental breakdown around halfway through that would fit snugly into their third record. The album’s best moment comes in its most brief track (take from that what you will) “Don’t Matter”, which has a chugging riff and aggressive attitude not heard since the likes of “My Party” or “Four Kicks”. However, it’s sad that they’ve had to turn to a style made famous by another band which comparatively runs like clockwork to give any reminder to the reader that the four siblings and cousin are accomplished musicians and were once the biggest band in the world.
And this is the main problem. Kings of Leon had so much going for them. They are very talented instrumentalists: Matthew can pull out an extremely efficient solo and Nathan’s drumming was a huge positive from their early recordings. And Caleb…oh Caleb, you have one of the most unique voices in rock music and yet you cannot use it well. I am of the opinion that having a frontman with a unique sounding voice puts you immediately ahead of the pack, and Caleb owns this. But he is so lazy lyrically it is laughable. It is well known that he used to deliberately sing unclearly due to the fact that what he was saying was nonsense. But it was fun nonsense: he sang about shooting someone and having a smoke to calm down, or about kicking up a fuss at a party full of city boys. Now the over sentimentality he tries and failed attempts at humour fall flat and it makes me cringe with embarrassment that I used to adore these guys so much. In fact, it has gotten to the point where I just don’t give much thought to the lyrics – it is difficult to be grabbed when he’s frankly talking bullshit. On Mechanical Bull he puts forward such overwrought, general sentiments as “tonight, somebodies lover is gonna pay for a sin” and idiotic lines like “I walk a mile in your shoes/and now I’m a mile away/and I’ve got your shoes”. What?! Caleb is that a joke, or are you serious? That one is from “Comeback Story” and, sadly, Mechanical Bull just isn’t. One of the problems that perennial detractors of the Kings of Leon have is with overtly misogynistic lyrics which appear here in buckets (although, I’ve always found this to be a very hypocritical argument, probably worthy of a separate article) but it’s hard to get too worked up about it when they appear in such drab, boring, careless and lazy work that I predict will not raise the Kings back to the throne that they gained through “Sex on Fire”.
All of this is enough to cause massive, heartbreaking disappointment, but I have yet to mention the lagging second half of the record that just fizzles out, and the songs like “Wait For Me” and “Beautiful War” which I’m sure the Followills think are grand opuses of modern rock when in fact they are derivative, re-treads of previous stadium filling fare. I will not go into these. Instead I will say that while Mechanical Bull is not terrible (and in fact none of their albums have been) it is a timely reminder that the Kings of Leon are not the band they once were. The biggest indicator of this being the fact that even the songs on here that are good, the ones that most touch upon the previous incarnations of this royal line, only serve to show that Caleb, Nathan, Matthew and Jared are now simply a parody of themselves, a Kings of Leon cover band, who make songs that sound like the ones we like from Youth and Young Manhood and its ilk to please some people and then make other songs that sound like “Use Somebody” to appease the others. Far be it for me to give advice to a band that have made millions, but they should shut up shop, strip everything down and go back to how they made music when they first started: youthful, fearless, expectation-less and free.