By Michael Lello
The only major miscalculation – if you want to call it that – Kings Of Leon ever made was writing a song that became so ubiquitous that Kidz Bob and Nickelback covered it. The backlash from indie rock fans was harsh, and not without reason; it’s not easy to see a band dubbed as “the Southern Strokes” occupying the same cultural space as Katy Perry.
Now, with five years and the 2010 palate cleanser “Come Around Sundown” between the star-launching “Only By The Night” album, KOL returns with “Mechanical Bull,” a release that makes every effort to reestablish the band as a legitimate alternative rock act — right where we want them. Fans can be so demanding sometimes.
The lead single “Supersoaker” opens the proceedings with syncopated bass and cascading guitars, Caleb Followill singing about how he doesn’t mind sentimental girls sometimes. “Rock City” is simpler and dirtier, Caleb – who reportedly recently did a stint in rehab — sharing a tale of “rolling through the deserts” and “looking for drugs” and “a bad girl looking for a bad boy.”
“Don’t Matter” springs from the Queens Of The Stone Age template – grinding post-punk and a chorus of eerie “ohs.” “I can fuck or I can fight/ It doesn’t matter to me,” he sings. “Beautiful War,” by contrast, is a widescreen ballad, with Nathan Followill’s drums and Jared Followill’s bass locked in and laying a deliberate beat. “Love don’t mean nothing unless there’s something worth fighting for/ It’s a beautiful war,” Caleb sings, and you can picture thousands of people singing and swaying along, but it’s not exactly “You know that I could use somebody.”
“Wait For Me” follows the Followill formula – shuffling, syncopated rhythms at the forefront – and it has hit and fan-favorite potential. “Family Tree” blends Southern rock with a modern approach and features a Black Keys-style breakdown and a big singalong moment with just vocals and drums.
“It’s the comeback story of a lifetime,” Caleb sings wryly in “Walk A Mile,” adding “I walk in a mile in your shows/ Now I’m a mile away and I’ve got your shoes.” He’s in fine form again on the midetmpo “Tonight,” straining his voice and, after a big buildup, intoning, “Tonight somebody’s lover is gonna pay for his sin.”
KOL closes “Mechanical Bull” with the ’80s synth-based “Coming Back Again,” with the melody slicing through shimmering guitars, and “On The Chin,” a twangy Rolling Stones-esque ballad. “You said make yourself at home/ So I started day drinkin’,” sings Caleb.
Whether it was intentional or not, Kings Of Leon made a tradeoff with “Only By The Night,” trading street cred for supermodels; you can’t fault someone for wanting to be successful. But what’s often forgotten is that it’s actually a good album. On the other hand, you can’t fault fans for turning a cynical eye to the whole enterprise. “Mechanical Bull” is an album that should be able to win them back.