8.8 / 10
RETURN OF THE KINGS– RECLAIMING THE THRONE
It’s amazing how fickle the American Rock & Roll fan base (or mob) can be. One minute they love you the next they loathe you- if you even get big enough to make it to the hatred. But for the Kings of Leon they not only had the backlash from their hardcore fans churning against them due to their new-found popularity but there was also internal combustion of nearly catastrophic proportions.
Singer/guitarist Caleb Followill was caught on the widening fault line between himself and the rest of the band that really began during the making of their fifth record Come Around Sundown which he revealed, “I pretty much checked out for that record.” Lead guitarist Matthew Followill added, “Making Come Around Sundown was just not fun. We were in a tiny studio in New York, there was too much alcohol around all day.” Everything came to a head when they almost completely imploded at a show in Dallas in 2011 when Caleb was unable to finish the show ending it prematurely and subsequently leading to the band having to cancel the last 26 dates of that tour. The other three members were irate over the situation causing a volatile rift with both parties lashing out at each other. Everyone needed to take a break and limp back to their caves to lick their wounds, take time to heal. The long road back to glory took two years, leading to Mechanical Bull.
Don’t let the less than stellar album title and campy neon artwork throw you for a loop- Mechanical Bull is the real deal. Lead single “Supersoaker” opens with jangling guitars ushering in a palpitating backbeat and buoyant keys. It’s a clarion call of sorts that the Kings of Leon have reconnected to an extent with their rough-and-tumble roots and it’s as carefree as they’ve sounded in years. “Rock City” saunters into the city limits out of the desert after a drug-abetted excursion, bourbon-sipping with southern-fried licks as Caleb confidently and androgynously states, “I can shake it like a woman,” suggesting more late night gender-bending mischief the likes of “Trani.” “Don’t Matter” is the filthiest track they’ve perhaps ever released, certainly it has the sand to stand with anything from Youth & Young Manhood or Aha Shake Heartbreak. Clocking in at only 2:50 it’s a ferocious stampede with Nathan Followill’s most thunderous, pummeling drums yet accompanied by gnashing, serrated guitars. A definite Queens Of The Stone Age influence prevails as pistons fire and the moonshine is guzzled on a charge across the sweltering landscape. Caleb proclaims with throbbing angst, “I can fuck or I can fight, it don’t matter to me.” “Beautiful War” is the first foray into the grandeur of ballads the likes of which permeated Only By The Night and Come Around Sundown. Gorgeous and shimmering, reminiscent of Joshua Tree/Rattle & Hum-era U2, a majestic crescendo builds into a magnificent meteor shower, a pining for connection on a vast frontier. They prove that they can craft a stop-the-clocks ballad as well as anybody and this might be their finest yet. “Temple” is an impassioned high tension wire of devotion while “Wait For Me” nocturnally simmers and glistens in the twilight. “Family Tree” settles down deep in a ‘70s groove, the funkiest conjured number here, as if they’ve been combing through a pile of old Stax Records LPs. “Comeback Story” is another phenomenal ballad with gentle rolling guitars similar to “Knocked Up” setting the pace. Seemingly autobiographical of the band, as if the title wasn’t enough, Caleb laments, “The bright of lights they are burning me out.” It’s certainly a testament to the exhaustion from the main spotlight and big stages before their hiatus as a genuflecting outro surges with strings for the mighty swell, nothing seems to be done on a small scale. “Tonight” blazes the night skyline with echoing staccato guitars and Caleb howling, “Tonight somebody’s lover is gonna pay for his sin.” “Coming Back Again” has the revving getaway engine of “California Waiting” with an eruption once more of caterwauling guitars in the chorus. The closer “On The Chin” is the most country-tinged song in the band’s canon with a heartbreaking Nashville twang as waves of pedal steel wash over the arena-ready tear-jerker. Caleb has said he has a great admiration for old-guard country artists such as Townes Van Zandt and this is no doubt his shot at their forlorn tales, channeling those outlaw ghosts with lines like, “Parked my bag of bones back of the station/ He said make yourself at home so I started day drinking.” Caleb shows he has the ability to write superb dusty storytelling songs and with its slow mirror ball spin this marks their fourth straight record closing with a “last call” of stunning beauty.
Kings of Leon make a statement with Mechanical Bull that they were out to make a record on their own time and their own terms, devoid of attempting to make mega hits or please anyone but themselves. Not for the casual fans who probably only listen to “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” nor for the apparent diehards who have been crying “Sell outs” since Only By The Night. And really, that’s the approach they should take when making records going forward. They’re still an immensely talented band and the muse will find them no matter how they’re perceived to the masses. Mechanical Bull is the most evenly balanced record they’ve released blending cocksure rockers with their matured ballads. Fans of the earlier material have a real tough time coping with the fact that the Kings of Leon were destined to be headliners around the world, they can’t fit in their back pockets and they aren’t just their band anymore. Whatever discord there was in the band the past couple of years has seemingly now floated under the bridge and they can now concentrate on getting back to the throne to reign as rock royalty for decades to come.