[26 September 2013]
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. But then came, Only By the Night in 2008, an album of more polished songcraft and arrangements, full of soaring anthems, including a pair global smashes, “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody”. The boys were suddenly enormous, headlining the major festivals, selling out arenas, and going platinum in a dozen countries.
Therein lies the tale of two fanbases. The first group: poorly-shaved indie and jam purists who fell for the Followills first three albums—an unruly mix of Southern twang and third-generation mod rock. With songs about drug benders and transvestites, the Kings were raw and weird and hirsute enough to remain off the radar of mainstream audiences and to therefore retain the approval of integrity watchdogs.
The second group is everyone else. That is, Greek Row, Taylor Swift, your sister-in-law, and the legions who discovered the Kings after “Sex on Fire” blew up. The band’s two fanbases are, in fact, almost completely mutually exclusive. Their old fans, angry that their Kings discovered razors and hit radio, vowed to skip KOL’s first headlining slot at Bonnaroo. However, the Followills themselves acknowledged that for every fan they alienated with any change in their sound or personal grooming, they gained five others, a sentiment that didn’t sit well with those original fans. Still, the brothers protested the sell-out label, claiming, for instance, that they’d turned down offers from Glee, insisting, as Jared did, “We could have sold out so much more!”
Everyone knows what happened next. The boys toured for two years as one of the biggest bands on the planet, watching the money roll in, and tweeting continually about how much booze they were throwing back. They wrote and recorded a new record (2010’s Come Around Sundown) without bothering to stop touring, a pace that did nothing to boost their mental or emotional health. Stories, and eventual videotape, surfaced depicting the band straining over frequent bickering. The arguing, the criticism, the booze, and the birdshit all started to close in. Finally, in July 2011, singer Caleb pulled out his rock-star meltdown move by bailing midway through a Dallas concert, after which the rest of the tour was scrapped.
So now Mechanical Bull marks the return of Kings of Leon, for which they attempt to prove they are a healthy, functioning band that can make a record that appeals to one of their fanbases and perhaps both. Unlike the making of their last album, this time they’ve had time to think about the kind of band they’d like to return as. And if Come Around Sundown was a deliberate attempt to ease away from chart-ready “Be Somebody”-style anthems, KOL had two tour-free years to piece together a new musical and commercial scheme while under mounting pressure to stage a comeback.
But that’s all just mechanical bull. The brothers insist that they’ve put their differences and dependencies aside and are ready to be your favorite band again. As the new album’s cover art suggests, they’re ready to hit the forward button. Or is that the “Redo” symbol on the cover? Either way, a glance at the song titles alone on Mechanical Bull is revealing. Two song titles refer to wounds incurred, namely getting hit in the face (“Temple”, “On the Chin”), and three others would appear to speak explicitly to the band’s return (“Comeback Story”, “Coming Back Again”, “Wait for Me”).
That return finds the band in ambitious form. Over an 11-song set, the quartet attempts a tour through their past, present, and future styles—something for everyone. So here we get the big swirling anthem, the slinky blues-based shout-along, the pop-smart chugging rocker. But if Mechanical Bull proves anything, it’s that the Kings have grown up and gone big and that there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. In that sense, there’s little evidence of the band trying to distance themselves from the shimmering large-scale appeal of Only By the Night.
A minority of tunes attempt the untreated roughhousing of old, such as “Rock City”, a song that jacks a Kiss title, a Dylan lyric, and a Tom Petty melody. It’s the boys as loose as they get these days, with Caleb’s talkiest verses, sounding like the Hold Steady trying to get that last dance with Mary Jane. “Don’t Matter” is a raw rocker that features the only guitar solo outside of country radio, but it’s a bit of a throwaway misplaced early on the album. “Family Tree” is the brothers trying to bring it all back home with a slinky soul structure on the verse although the jumbo group-vocal-and-drums-only chorus is more Bon Jovi than Sly and the Family Stone, especially with its “lay your hands on me” refrain.
As craftsmen and musicians, however, Mechanical Bull finds the band firing on all cylinders, and, again working with producer Angelo Petraglia, the album sounds fuller and brighter than any of its predecessors. The record might not be as edgy as the early albums, but it certainly is Edge-y, as little cousin Matthew furnishes layers of U2-style ringing arpeggios anchored by Jared’s contrapuntal bass stabs and Nathan’s sturdy, comping drums.
Caleb is singing with greater dexterity, more attention to technique, with a polished vocal command that might invite detractors—gone are the yelps and scats of the early records when he sounded like Nipsey Russell cast as Bon Scott—but the poised power in his performances here helps make Mechanical Bull the band’s most consistently melodic album yet.
Lead single “Supersoaker” is a case in point, a ringer of pedal-drenched guitar, unfussy percussive thwap, and a dreamy romantic chorus. Caleb leans into that broad melody and doesn’t mind the sentimental girls singing along. “Beautiful War” goes even bigger, a slow-building centerpiece of guitar chimes, bass coitus, Bono-style belting, and a gospel-suffused outro. It’s among the prettiest things they’ve written, and the arrangement and performances soar.
A Byrds guitar figure gives way to the power pop of “Temple”, the kind of fluid, crafted rock that defines the new record. The playing is first-rate, as dual guitars chunk and whirl around Caleb’s considerable hooks. “I take one in the temple, I take one for you,” he sings—open-hearted lyrics set to music that likewise does away with the eccentricities of old in favor of contoured, catchy adult rock. “It’s all better now,” Caleb insists on “Wait for Me” over a skittering drum pulse that caroms off enough mirror-ball guitar echo to make you believe him.
“Comeback Story” strengthens the case as the Kings offer their sweetest songwriting. The percolating guitars and shuffling rhythm make like latter-day Paul Simon, complete with the honeyed melodies, whistling, and pensive-but-droll lyrics: “I walk a mile in your shoes / Now I’m a mile away / And I’ve got your shoes.” “Tonight” is a driving ballad featuring Caleb’s most impassioned vocal cry and a middle-section breakdown straight from The Joshua Tree. It isn’t the only time KOL harkens back to Eighties power balladry, with AOR moves that at times evoke classic arena rock: “Coming Back Again” wouldn’t be out of place on Journey’s Escape album, complete with hi-hat-crazy verses and Steve Perry-aping whoa-ohs.
The record ends with “On the Chin”, the closest the new record comes to a country ballad with its subtle steel-guitar accents, forlorn melody, and drinking lyrics. It’s another winner on an album that accumulates a lot of them. Mechanical Bull won’t make everyone happy, but the Followills have come back after a booze-and-burnout sabbatical sounding not just refreshed but enriched. And that’s more than good enough. Look for a sell out.