A few years ago I described the Kings of Leon to a friend who had not heard of them as “sort of like The Strokes for rednecks.” Now this sloppy generalization was more a hat tip to the power and influence of The Strokes’ sound than a slight to the Kings of Leon. In fact, even when reduced to a country-fried version of The Strokes, it has certainly not hurt Kings of Leon in terms of record sales and productivity. Six studio albums deep, the Tennessee quartet continues to sell out shows and produce the sort of Southern-influenced, distinctly American rock music that has made them a household name.
On the group’s latest offering, Mechanical Bull, we find a band not necessarily looking to break new ground, as was the case with 2008’s multi-platinum Only by the Night, but rather master the craft that is—for lack of a better description—the Kings of Leon sound. By this measurement alone, Mechanical Bull is the band’s most complete and professional work to date.
Little is made in these days of iTunes and digital downloads of an album’s congruity or how the tracks as a whole translate to a wider view of the work. Experiencing music in the modern age has become this disjointed practice of only listening to downloaded tracks and doing so in a random, haphazard fashion. I make mention of this as Mechanical Bull, much to its and the artists’ credit, actually feels and plays like an entire piece; where one track slides seamlessly to the next and each one sounds as if they were made for the album. And while this is certainly not Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Mechanic Bull is undoubtedly the most comprehensive—if you can call it that—album I have heard this year.
It would be a bold declaration to label the Mechanic Bull as the definitive Kings of Leon album, but it is tough to find another to take on that title. Where Only by the Night felt over-produced, Because of the Times was a bit chaotic, and Come Around Sundown seemed almost mailed in; Mechanic Bull succeeds in being, well, what we believe a Kings of Leon album should be. Tracks like “Supersoaker,” “Rock City” (where Caleb Followill croons that he is “looking for drugs”), and “Temple” have the same edgy and cocksure sound of years’ old cuts like “Black Thumbnail” and “Pistol of Fire,” but just a bit tighter and more mature.
On slower tempo songs such as “Wait for Me” and “Beautiful War” Followill shows off a certain ripeness in his songwriting that elicits the same sort of affection for the fairer sex without the cheesiness that tinged past offerings. This doesn’t mean that he is without a sense of humor. In one of the album’s catchier offerings, “Comeback Story,” he tongue-in-cheeks: “I’ll walk a mile in your shoes/Now I’m a mile away/And I’ve got your shoes.”
What Mechanic Bull has that other Kings of Leon offerings couldn’t quite capture is a clarity that is almost absolute. This album is more focused, more organic and yet more accessible. It would not be mere conjecture to believe that this sharpened effort is the result of the band taking a hiatus after months of grueling touring that resulted in cancelled tour dates and alcohol-induced mid-show meltdowns. This hiatus did the band well; the songwriting and music sound refreshed and more authentic.
The albums most endearing track has to be its last one, entitled “On the Chin.” Given Caleb Followill’s past issues and if, as the front man, you view him as the leader of the band—a band made up of his cousin and two brothers—then this song screams at a deeper meaning. I envision him sitting is some quite, small room deep in the heart of Dixie, chain-smoking as he warbles: “All my life I was born to lead/Worry not just leave me be/I’ll abide until the end/And I’ll take it on the chin for you my friend.”
Mechanic Bull is Kings of Leon’s most inspired and complete album to date. While it may lack some of the theatrics and pop hits of past offerings, it maintains a consistency that demonstrates that band has crossed a musical threshold where they have mastered the art of being Kings of Leon. This isn’t to say that this mastery is not without a few imperfections, but aren’t those imperfections the reason we love Kings of Leon to begin with?