The band's first album in three years sees them attempting to rediscover their early spark – but falling frustratingly short
Kings Of Leon are the ex you can’t forget about. As relationships go, it started so well – all wild passion, snogging on scuzzy street corners and staying up all night playing each other your fave Creedence Clearwater Revival deep cuts. But things ended messily. They decided they were too mature for you, and started cracking onto the popular girls instead, the ones with shiny hair and perfect teeth. They changed and you did too.
Even so, you still can’t seem to get them out of your mind, and at the start of the year, they slunk back onto your radar, single and ready to re-mingle. NME accosted Kings Of Leon bassist Jared Followill at SXSW as they began readying their sixth album for release. He told us that the forthcoming new LP contained fevered flashes of their game-changing 2003 debut ‘Youth & Young Manhood’. Cue much fluttering of the heart, primping of the hair and inevitable sighs of ‘Yeah… but really?’
A lot has happened in the family Followill in the three years since the stadium pomp of ‘Come Around Sundown’. Boys have become men, with Jared and Caleb both getting hitched – to supermodels, of course – and most of the band are shooting out babies all over the shop. Add to this Caleb’s very public, booze-abetted meltdown of 2011, and you’ve got yourself a raft of reasons for Kings Of Leon wanting to regain some of their youthful, denim-tearing vigour. And while they certainly give it a go on ‘Mechanical Bull’, the record sees them only half-remembering how fun it is to make an album and remaining frustratingly wary of letting totally loose.
Some moments of brilliance, however, do thrive within these self-stacked walls of reserve. Gorgeous grime and grit thrums though the ripping, give-a-toss trucker stomper ‘Don’t Matter’, which starts in the way all Kings Of Leon songs should: with a primal wail and the taut woody click of drumsticks. ‘Temple’, which sits neatly in the middle of the 11-track release, is perhaps the best thing they’ve written in five years, and certainly the most effortless. We’ve absolutely no idea why its melodic chug and Tom Petty-style exultation wasn’t pitched as their comeback track – especially seeing as it’s not, as title might suggest, about scaling Tibetan mountains and meditating, but rather taking a shot in the head for a prospective lover in the perfect game of rock’n’roll Russian roulette. ‘Family Tree’ is another gem, the album’s Sly & The Family Stone moment, complete with balls-out bassline and a hefty handclap-assisted breakdown.
Those songs aside, the Followills’ cup doesn’t exactly runneth over. ‘Tonight’ is an uninspiring culmination of the histrionics and wailing guitar solos that made their last two LPs such incredibly hard work. ‘Supersoaker’ suggests old-school thrills and classic guitar chills, but it’s played by numbers, a shadow of their earlier work. ‘On The Chin’ trudges by just as tritely, as does ‘Comeback Story’, which sees Caleb proclaiming “It’s the comeback story of a lifetime” – wishful thinking, love – before glum pedal steel and wafty strings seep in. But the real downfall of ‘Mechanical Bull’ is its bluesy, indulgent balladry, as extravagantly overblown as Dolly Parton’s wig collection. Only ‘Wait For Me’ fares well from this bunch, with Caleb getting fully stuck into the kind of yearning that suits the Southern accent so well.
‘Rock City’ is perhaps symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with ‘Mechanical Bull’. It boasts an opening gambit that essentially sounds like Queens Of The Stone Age’s approach to Thursday afternoons. “I was running through the desert/I was lookin’ for drugs“, offers Caleb. But it never fulfils the promise of such debauchery. Further listens don’t offer complex layers and hidden hooks, but draw attention to its plodding structure and hokey lyrics. It’ll do for a fleeting one-night stand, but ‘Mechanical Bull’ isn’t the rekindling of a romance that we’d hoped for.