Ever since the release of 2008’s ‘Only By The Night’ divisions had arose within the Kings of Leon over which musical direction the band should continue to pursue. The expansive sound and undoubted stadium ambition of OBTN provided the Followills with unprecedented levels of mainstream success both in the UK and their previously unreceptive home of the USA.
However, it became increasingly apparent that not everyone within the group was happy with such success and the inevitable consequences that accompany it. Lead singer Caleb Followill went on record in a number of interviews as well as numerous live performances, that he wasn’t entirely pleased with the new demographic of fans OBTN had attracted and what he felt the band had lost in the process.
Continually deriding the album’s hugely successful single ‘Sex on Fire’ as a song the band viewed as a joke and a piece of music that barely made the album at all. Caleb described his discomfort at the band being recognised for a song he felt was far inferior to many other tracks the group had recorded in their discography.
During numerous festival appearances, the band seemed to express great dissatisfaction at audiences turning up to their shows simply to hear OBTN’s two lead singles ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’, whilst they remained largely quiet for the rest of the band’s considerable set list.
Though many were quick to condemn the group for being so dissatisfied with such economically beneficial success, it’s easy to understand the artistic quandary the Followills found themselves in when attempting to decide how they should move forward from such a pivotal record.
2010’s follow up to OBTN ‘ Come Around Sundown’ confirmed to the world that the Kings of Leon were still stuck firmly within a state of collective indecision. The album contained elements that harked back to the group’s earlier, grittier material, but also provided songs that reflected the mainstream ambition of OBTN.
In truth such an artistically incoherent album aimed at placating both sets of Kings of Leon’s fans, ended up satisfying neither and critics accused the album of sounding overly cautious and lyrically simplistic.
Following a cancelled tour in 2011 amid rumours of health concerns and infighting within the band, many were justified in fearing for the future of a group that once possessed so much promise.
However, following a lengthy period of rest and rehabilitation, in which all but one of the band’s members have gotten married and had children, the Kings of Leon announced their plans to release a 6th studio album entitled ‘Mechanical Bull.’
Leading up to the release of MB, band members went on record in interviews to display a unified front, citing the positive effects of such a prolonged period of rest and stating that this 6th studio album reflected a group of musicians now far more comfortable with themselves.
The opening three tracks of MB provide a sense of real momentum, with the band producing fast paced guitar led rock songs that reflect the group’s earlier material.
Lead single ‘Supersoaker’ is an infectious and upbeat summer rock song, relentless yet melodic, with wailing vocals evoking the band’s earlier work on ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’.
Subsequent tracks, ‘Rock City’ and ‘Don’t Matter’ showcase a gritty southern rock style, with intensity reminiscent of The Stooges and the group’s first album ‘Youth and Young Manhood’.
Caleb’s vocals are laden with an attitude not seen on the past two records, in ‘Don’t Matter’ he declares ‘I can fuck and I can fight, it don’t matter to me’ whilst ‘Rock City’ begins with the lead singer stating ‘I was running through the desert I was looking for drugs/I was searching for a woman who was ready to love.’
Despite such an enjoyably raucous beginning, the majority of MB is made up of melodic mid-tempo songs that the band appears to be far more comfortable producing in bulk.
‘Beautiful War’ is an atmospheric ballad, originally written around the time of OBTN, instantly evocative of the band’s 2008 album and the night-time allegiance of its songs.
Whilst pleasantly melodic, with lyrics that reflect the impact fatherhood has had on the front man, the overlong ballad doesn’t really develop into a satisfying crescendo and instead dissipates just as faintly as it begins.
However, if ‘Beautiful War’ proved an unsatisfying attempt at a melodic ballad, ‘Wait for Me’ is its antithesis, a rhythmic love song, with yearning group vocals that provides one of the more satisfying slower moments on MB.
‘Temple’, one of the stronger songs on the album and sure to be a radio hit, is a well polished mid-tempo song, with a chorus evoking commercial American rock of the 90s and a bridge that Thin Lizzy fans may find familiar. Songs like ‘Temple’ and the funky ‘Family Tree’ reflect an album that feels far more light-hearted than any previous effort from KOL and this also translates to the lyrics throughout the record, filled more with ironic jests than sardonic wit.
The one exception to the overall melancholy of the latter half of MB is the song ‘Tonight’ in which Caleb sings with more urgency and intensity than anywhere else on the record.
Declaring ‘ Tonight/ somebody’s lover is gonna pay for a sin’ Caleb’s voice seems genuinely pained and thus the song becomes all the more engaging. ‘Tonight’ is a brooding warning of the night-time antics in Broadway, Nashville and the urgency of the vocals, combined with an ‘Immortals’ style chorus make it the most exciting song of the album.
Whilst Mechanical Bull displays the Followills having rediscovered their love for creating music and are probably happier than ever, the record suffers from a lack of artistic clarity that has now plagued the band for the last 5 years.
There is plenty of music to enjoy on MB with songs that are sure to please both new and old fans of the group, however, the album stops short of being a truly great work through Kings Of Leon’s continued inability to decide exactly what it is they want to be.