Kings Of Leon's Classic Sound Is Shaken Up On 'Mechanical Bull'
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 20:09
“It doesn’t matter / Cause I’m always the same” sings Caleb Followill on the third track, appropriately titled “Don’t Matter,” off Kings of Leon’s sixth studio effort, Mechanical Bull. These lyrics seem to be addressing the meltdown that effectively turned one of the biggest rock bands in the world and the band once lauded by critics and rock and roll peers alike as “innovators” into one of the biggest rock n’ roll cliches—the rock star with the alcohol problem.
The meltdown came during the band’s tour for its last album, 2010’s lackluster Come Around Sundown, when Caleb Followill announced to a Dallas crowd that he was “gonna go vomit … drink a beer and play three more songs.” He never returned. The band’s bassist and Followill’s youngest brother, Jared (the band is comprised of three brothers and one cousin: Nathan, the oldest on drums, Caleb sings vocals and plays rhythm guitar, and cousin Matthew plays lead guitar), told the crowd: “Hate Caleb, not us.” And suddenly, it seemed that these brothers and sons of evangelical preachers, were playing out their own version of Cain and Abel.
To many fans, it seemed as though the band may have been, just as other legendary brothers have, bludgeoning themselves from the inside. As Caleb told Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year, “It hurt when I heard them say that because I’ve always stood behind them.”
So when the band returned from its nearly one-year break preaching a revival of the band and brandishing the phrases “best album yet” and “it sounds like our old stuff,” there would be reasons for fans to be a little skeptical. (Especially since Caleb never considered going to rehab—he simply stopped drinking for nine months to prove that he could.)
After a listen through the album, one realizes, however, that they might be right. The opening track and the album’s first single, “Supersoaker” sets the tone, with a jangly and fuzzy rock guitar that would make legendary The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr proud and any hipster with a band and a beard jealous. The song also features drums that really do make the album sound like their old stuff (mainly, “The Bucket” off 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak and “California Waiting” from their 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood).
The true star of this album is Matthew Followill’s lead guitar work. On this album, he seems to have ripped posters of U2’s Edge off his bedroom wall, like a teenager, who after a period of uncertainty wanted to be himself again. He ditches the “wall of sound” guitar effect that seems tailor made for arenas and returns to the style he adopted on both of the band’s breakout albums, Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown (This very guitar sound is one of the main reasons that after hits like “Sex on Fire,” many of their longtime fans labeled them “sell-outs”). On “Rock City,” one of the album’s best tracks, he elevates it with a fast, all down-strumming, punk-like guitar–while on the next tracks, “Don’t Matter” and “Beautiful War,” he explodes with dirty, refreshingly unaffected guitar solos. Finally on “Temple,” he hangs back with a light guitar sound that lets Caleb’s voice shine.
And shine on this record it does. Caleb doesn’t overuse his stereotypical rock and roll growl or his annoyingly coarse rock scream (Robert Plant did it better). Rather, he decides to slide in and out of the notes, in the vein of a rock singer who is imitating an R&B singer, which is something that he admitted to doing when he was younger, when he was an avid fan of Boyz II Men. His vocal highlight of the album is “Temple,” which features virtually no growl, but interesting high notes. His lyrics have also improved, especially on “Rock City,” where he sings, “I was looking for a bad girl / Looking for a bad boy.”
Bassist Jared and drummer Nathan, who were often considered the better musicians in the band, are solid here. Listen for Jared’s sneakily cool bass line in “Temple” and the unforgettable one in “Family Tree.”
Moreover, it sounds like the band is having fun, from the little screams at the beginning of “Rock City” to the all-out howl on “Wait for Me.” On the latter song, the drums sound like applause. And that’s exactly what they deserve.