Mechanical Bull is an apt title for the latest Kings of Leon album, John Robinson writes, because it describes the band’s experiences with what it takes to climb back to success
Back in the saddle
As career crises go, that which overtook Kings of Leon at the end of July 2011 now seems a mild one – but like in-flight turbulence, that’s something easy to be wise about after the event. Onstage in Dallas, Caleb Followill, the young man whose characterful voice had piloted the band’s rise to popularity over the previous eight years, now brought their performance to an unscheduled stop. He then outlined his intentions: to leave the stage, then “vomit, drink a beer, then come back and play three more songs”.
He never returned, and the remainder of the band’s US tour was cancelled – amid rumours of alcohol excess and irreconcilable difference. To those observing from a safe distance, it was interesting to note that even a top-ranking rock group, subject to the highest level of management scrutiny, could still have the wheels come off it in such a public way.
The new Kings of Leon album (unbelievably their sixth; a workrate which may help explain some of their recent dramas) is a solid riposte to that incident. It’s certainly got a good title. After a run of albums with ultimately nonsensical names, Mechanical Bull is a robust, recognisably southern metaphor for life in the entertainment industry. If you’re stupid enough or drunk enough to get on the ride in the first place, you have to expect to come a cropper now and then. If you come off, you dust yourself down and get back on again.
That idea, and the album, both represent the kind of no-nonsense statement of first principles that the band were much in need of. Recorded not in some top-level facility in the Bahamas but in their own studio in Nashville, the album is as close as you are likely to get to hearing a major mainstream rock group tell you a little about what they’re going through. Although the pressure must be on (Come Around Sundown sold only 25 per cent of its predecessor), it doesn’t really sound like it at all.
It’s not over-polished, and that’s part of the point. Both the second song, a slouching Neil Young-reminiscent number called Rock City and the subsequent Don’t Matter, a convincing replication of the raucous hard rock sound of Queens of the Stone Age, feature some apparently spontaneous whoops of joy. Insignificant moments on the surface, perhaps, but they still subtly restate that this is a band made up of actual musicians who enjoy playing rather than corporate rock droids who only get out of bed for a large paycheque.
Authenticity, after all, has been both friend and foe to Kings of Leon. When the band first emerged to a wider world in 2003, their backstory was irresistible – the band are the sons (and one nephew) of a southern Pentecostal preacher, a charismatic, if faintly unpredictable figure who informed much of their itinerant early life. It provided a wonderful grounding for their sound (loosely: Forrest Gump fronts The Strokes), and the package was very nearly a rock critic’s dream come true.
But not quite. Although recorded with Ethan Johns, a young British producer whose entire family (father Glyn with The Rolling Stones and The Faces; uncle Andy also with the Stones) has had an illustrious history of working with rootsy rock bands, it eventually emerged that the young band’s songs had been co-written with a career Nashville songwriter, Angelo Petraglia. If this revelation (which seemed pretty big in 2003) marked the end of one phase of the band’s life (the unquestioning love of the UK music press), it marked a new route ahead.
As any R&B group might, the band embraced the formula that had worked for them, and their route into megastardom has since been made with a slick sound masterminded by Petraglia and another dark lord of the recording studio, Jacquire King. Their 2008 record, Only by the Night, marked the point at which the band became inescapable – now not so much a rock band with a core fanbase, but mainstream artists whose songs (most notably the excellent Use Somebody and ubiquitous Sex On Fire) were adopted by a casual, pop audience.
2010’s Come Around Sundown, a big but unspectacular seller, seemed to buck this trend, with songs like Back Down South (all lap steel guitar and hoedown video) again invoking the memory of some kind of authentic, plaid-shirted southern rock – even while the band bought big houses and dated lingerie models. Though truer to the band, perhaps, the sound proved alienating to a large number of listeners. This fact no doubt added to the pressure the band were under in 2011.
While Mechanical Bull is far from some kind of raw and unmediated kind of back-to-basics album, it does still benefit immensely from the release of tension that Followill’s onstage episode of 2011 seems to have offered. If the meanings of songs on the band’s last two albums have been a little elusive, their productions hard to distinguish from the echoing stadium rock template established by Brian Eno and Flood for U2 25 years ago, here we are unmistakably listening to a band trying (and often succeeding) in sounding like a bunch of guys playing in a room.
Magnificent in this regard is album opener Supersoaker – a summer anthem, of joyful electric guitar strumming – and also the very good Temple. In this number, the band reconnect with the punkier influences presented to them by youngest brother Jared in 2002. A song of Pixies bassline and Julian Casablancas delivery, the song feels like a minor indie rock tune, but quickly arrives at the kind of classy hook you might find on an R&B song. It’s as if their initial rawness is productively combining with all the studio arts they’ve learnt in the succeeding 10 years.
The band’s experiences with what we are obligated to call “the darker side of fame” have also given them something concrete to write about. Rock City is a song with more than a wink to the camera, as Followill lazily sings, “I was running through the desert/Looking for drugs”, but Family Tree, a purposeful bluesy riff, seems a more realistic report on the band’s recent state of affairs. Here Followill wonders fairly aggressively why anyone would “give a good hot damn” what he’s doing with his life.
A good Kings of Leon album is one front-loaded with strong songs, and such is the case here, the first part of the album peaking with a great ballad called Beautiful War, in which Followill ponders love’s rules of engagement. If we fight, he’s saying, it’s because our relationship is worth fighting for. It’s probably the high point of his songwriting so far, being a romantic idea, delivered in a fairly macho language – a big song that we will soon be hearing during sad scenes in romantic comedies.
By the same token, it is almost obligatory that an album like this one should end with an introspective ballad. On the Chin finds the singer again examining his recent experiences, but this time handling the assignment less confidently. We’re in the realm of more general martyrdom, in which Followill imagines himself as a loser messiah: “in the basement/Shattered like the windows”. To the tune of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, he sings that he will be happy to take on other people’s burdens, just as long as they leave him alone.
Throughout these songs, the message comes through loud and clear: of late the singer and the band have gone through some rough times. If he has to look on the bright side, he can admit that the experience has at least allowed him to discover who his real friends are. The song that best articulates this feeling, however, comes a little earlier in the running order, and is more successful for being a bit odder, a bit less self-pitying.
A slick production that nods back to their Only by the Night successes, in early versions of the album this song was called Walk a Mile. It has a chorus amusingly at odds with its subject of being badly let down by someone: “I walked a mile in your shoes/Now I’m a mile away …” Followill sings, “… And I’ve got your shoes”. As the strings come in, the song goes on to philosophise: “The race isn’t over til the finish line.” It’s a song with a vaguely sporting flavour.
On the finished album this song is called Comeback Story, as if the band were a boxer that has hit bottom and bounced back to the top spot. Really, the truth is a lot less dramatic. Kings of Leon have had something of a wake-up call. The experience simply reminded them who they were, and what they needed to accomplish.