Written by Dylan Knox
Kings of Leon used to be cool. Kings of Leon was rock and roll. They had the awesome origin story and everything. The Followills (brothers Nathan, Jared, Caleb and cousin Matthew) grew up the sons of a United Pentecostal preacher, in a house that preached the virtues of rock and roll alongside Christian values. Being the rebellious souls they claim to be, the Followills spurned their religious roots to follow their dream of creating some good old down home southern rock and roll. Their hobbies included hunting and fishing, their drunken disputes were well tabloid worthy. They connected to a southern rock fanbase that hadn’t boasted a rock and roll personality to define them since Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The whole appeal of early Kings of Leon stemmed from this persona; Being homeschooled, growing up connected to the church, they were the antithesis of Hollywood obsessed, pop dominated, mainstream culture. For better or for worse, their first two albums, Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, essentially sound like a really talented bar band. They hooted happily on The Bucket, hollered hey hey raucously on Taper Jean Girl. They sounded like they were having fun. They sounded like they were having fun. Caleb may not have been a good singer, in fact he definitely wasn’t, but they made up for it with driving guitar licks and frenzied drumming, sincere in their fervor for music.
This whole archetype was shattered with 2008’s Only by the Night. Somewhere between Aha Shake Heartbreak and Only by the Night the Followill’s decided to drop the down home bar band act, shifting towards full blown arena rock. And the band definitely improved on a technical level. The guitar work is more interesting, the production more tight, Caleb more confident in his voice. Perhaps too confident, as the more recent incarnation of Kings of Leon has shifted to soaring vocals that simply just don’t work. Yet most likely because of the immense popularity of the album, it was only logical that 2013’s Mechanical Bull would follow the same template.
The problem with Mechanical Bull is less the arena rock vibe, and more the fact that it seems like the band has simply run out of creativity in framing their songs. They use the same fuzzed out guitar effect on nearly every song, the intro to first single “Supersoaker” is nearly identical to “Temple”, ditto for late album tracks “Coming Back Again”, “Work on Me”, and “Last Mile” Home. The whole album feels completely vanilla, devoid of anything that made Kings of Leon appealing and interesting.
What’s even worse is when Kings of Leon attempts to go back to the southern rock roots that drove them to initial fame. Family Tree is cringe worthy, culminating with Followill leading a sing along, repeating, “I am your family tree, I know your A to Z, this is a secret proposition lay your hands on me”. Kings of Leon have never boasted particularly thought provoking lyrics (their biggest hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” rely on simple catchy repetition of what is essentially nonsense phrases), this problem is only amplified when they allow cut out the rest of the music for a sing and clap along.
There are parts of the new Kings of Leon we have to accept. The down home boys from the south are gone, replaced with full blown, well groomed rock stars (their video for 2010’s single Radioactive is disturbingly reminiscent of Russell Brand’s character Alduous Snow in Get Him to the Greek. His video for African Child is explicitly racist and offensive, while Radioactive is only slightly more subdued). If you are a fan of Kings of Leon you have either accepted it, or abandoned the band. We must also accept that their lyrics will never be particularly poetic or thought provoking, and likely focused on sex. But where Only by the Night succeeded in churning out legitimately catchy sing-along rock anthems, Mechanical Bull falls on its face, delivering a bland and forgettable experience devoid of both the humble charms of early Kings of Leon and the stadium filling bombast of Only by the Night. Kings of Leon may not be perfect, but surely they’re better than this.
Rating: W (out of W-P-G-U)
RIYL: Band of Horses, The Killers, The Black Keys
Stream Mechanical Bull below: