You simply cannot fulfill all the stereotypes of being a World-Famous Rock Band without facing some kind of internal crisis, and so, between their 2011 tour and the recording of their sixth album, Mechanical Bull, Tennessee’s Kings of Leon moved one step closer to meeting expectations. Frontman Caleb Followill had been leading a messy personal life, fraught with alcoholism and self-doubt, which culminated in a notorious moment on that tour when he vomited while performing, ran backstage for a quick beer, and returned for three songs—only to then leave again and eventually cancel the remainder of their American dates. Breakup rumors obligatorily followed: Kings of Leon being comprised of three brothers and a cousin, we can imagine family ties tightened and caused problems on occasion.
Latter-day KoL—as opposed to the greasier early incarnation—has depended heavily on Caleb’s abilities as a leading man, and Mechanical Bull’s emotional core is sizable because of that. The riffs and hooks of their first few albums were so memorable that it never much mattered whether Caleb was interesting with his words—and often he wasn’t, or anyway it wasn’t always clear what he was singing about and he had a patchy way of putting things. Here, he’s more confident than usual lyrically but still plenty contemplative, like he’s clear-headed and sure of his next step because he learned from the last stumble. “She said make yourself at home/ So I started day-drinking,” he reflects on closer “On the Chin”, one of many allusions to his behind-the-music troubles. Elsewhere, he’s at the end of his rope but not necessarily determined to turn things around: “I could fuck or I could fight/ It don’t matter to me.” Finally—and this is pretty much a given—the 31-year-old is at his best vocally, powering through songs like “Comeback Story” and adding colorful lilts to the relatively lighthearted “Temple”.
KoL’s aim for this album, drummer Nathan has said, was to create an “unofficial greatest hits,” an album that reflects everything they’ve done in the past decade. With Angelo Petraglia behind the boards as always, they more or less succeeded. “Supersoaker” is the album’s obvious single, but even that one has an intro nearly identical to that of “The Bucket”, from 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. Second track “Rock City” has glam rock tones and is one of the first-half tracks with a flashy but efficient solo from lead guitarist Matthew. Following that is “Don’t Matter”, a scorcher that pulses along steadily like the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
That just begins to cover everything here, as the band often ditches the crunchy eighth-note strums and opts for more majestic sounds, wide open like a great plain under a Talihina sky. These are the points where strings sweep (“Comeback Story”) and where backing gospel vocalists soar (“Beautiful War”). The second half is generally slower and modest, but it’s here KoL practically sound like a Southern rock U2. Even the lighter guitar work of these songs has an element of grandeur, as on the winding and weaving “Tonight”.
You might call this redemption rock for how Caleb seems to be cleansing his entire being when he holds his highest notes, and certainly the album was meant to be redemptive for the fans who felt betrayed upon 2008’s Only by the Night and its uncharacteristic radio smashes (“Use Somebody”, “Sex on Fire”). Basically, Mechanical Bull is the sound of a band reviving its former selves for the benefit of each other and for their longtime fans, and it’s their best album since Aha Shake Heartbreak. It’s not often that self-intervention is quite this rewarding.
Essential Tracks: “Supersoaker”, “Temple”, and “Tonight”