Recording a victory-lap album after a commercially successful breakthrough record is an expected and generally accepted step for a rock band. But tacking another victory lap onto the end of the first signals laziness; the ideas are beginning to run dry. With Kings Of Leon’s sixth album, Mechanical Bull, the group has reached another turning point and has to choose whether to coast on past success or strive for something better.
After the band’s first two albums, Kings Of Leon nearly collapsed, but managed to regroup for a creative leap forward on 2007’s Because Of The Times—which is still its best work—and the record that helped the band hit the big time, 2008’s Only By The Night. After an uncharacteristically tossed-off follow-up, 2010’s Come Around Sundown, and a disastrously excessive tour documented in the little-seen documentary about the band, Mechanical Bull was set up as an opportunity to pull out of a dive. Instead, it’s another halfhearted crowd-pleaser without much substance.
In the beginning of their career, the story of the Followills’ small-town origins, religious upbringing, and innocence lost on tour dominated their underappreciated experimental blend of Southern-roots/rock instrumentation and post-punk concision. But success has smoothed out that streak, and Mechanical Bull is straight-ahead rock groomed for stadiums. Lead single “Supersoaker” blends the obvious sexual innuendo that soaked every song on Only By The Night with the cresting sing-alongs from Come Around Sundown’s big hit “Radioactive.”
“Rock City” and “Family Tree” are exhausting filler, with mind-numbingly insipid lyrics that spoil some mildly catchy riffs. But “Temple,” the album’s best track, is a arena-ready party-rocker with a bouncy rhythm that gives way to big hooks. Still, Kings Of Leon have a penchant for burying the catchiest left turns behind a bunch of album-filling dreck, like “Pony Up” on Come Around Sundown or “Ragoo” on Because Of The Times. The trotting riff on “Comeback Story” uses the echoes of a whistling chorus to great effect, a soothing return to the murky nighttime of Only By The Night, plus the cheeky lyric “Now I’m a mile away / And I’ve got your shoes.” And the frenetic pace of “Coming Back Again” shows that the family band likes to mix some dark new wave in with the Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band touches. There’s a lot of competent, catchy songwriting buried beneath the haze of perfunctory attitude, but it’s a frustrating game to wait for lyricist Caleb and arranger Nathan (though the three brothers and cousin are always credited as equals) to put those feet forward.
The record also relies too heavily on reverb and the sonic imitation of stadium space to create a heightened atmosphere. The band’s best songs—like “McFearless” or “King Of The Rodeo”—put Caleb’s voice front and center on the track, with the guitars punching right behind it. On Mechanical Bull, the band sounds like it’s standing in the middle of a football stadium playing to the nosebleeds.
Every Kings Of Leon album has a five-syllable title, dating back to the two records, Youth & Young Manhood and A-Ha Shake Heartbreak. There is perhaps no better encapsulation of the band’s creative ability than that stylistic quirk: clever, with seemingly infinite variations, but confined to a narrow range. Mechanical Bull falls right in that sweet spot, but very little of what made the band exciting on its early albums remains. It was cool for them to sound effortless while channeling the dark-side-of-fame turmoil—and the Followills are still skilled crowd-pleasers—but on this record, they sound weary even when they aren’t trying.