Review Summary: Though back from exile, the kings haven't quite won their throne back yet.
What a strange tale the Kings Of Leon story has been. Though ever-adored by the British music press, it wasn't until album number three, their magnum opus Because Of The Times, that they broke into the mainstream consciousness. And even after several monster hits and two more albums – the lustrous Only By The Night and the lethargic Come Around Sundown – they never really achieved much success in their native America. After the disappointment many people expressed at Come Around Sundown, for failing to deliver either the garage grit of their early days or the polished theatrics of their latter, they seemed to be calling it quits. Going out with a whimper rather than a bang, then?
Not quite. Many fans begged the Followill brothers and cousin to reunite, and return to the sun-baked garage rock they started out making. As much as I loved everything up to and including Only By The Night, I found myself echoing the sentiment; Come Around Sundown was the sound of the band moving too far into Springsteen stadium rock territory, all beige choruses and no weight. A return to the fieriness of their early years is exactly what they needed.
How excited we all were, then, when sixth LP Mechanical Bull was announced. “We're going back to our roots,” the band said. “We've been listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age,” they said. Perfect. Mechanical Bull was to be heavy, energetic, maybe even experimental. The title alone suggested a sound muscular and adventurous, perhaps in the piledriving style of The Dead Weather (or Them Crooked Vultures, at the very least). Kings Of Leon were to return with a bang.
Well, bugger. Though thankfully not Come Around Sundown 2, the hot-off-the-press Mechanical Bull isn't the stomping and facemelting return to form we were hoping for either. It is, in fact, slap bang in the middle of the two. Their bite is back – faster tempos, coarser guitars – but the soppiness of Sundown still hangs in the air, the frothy nods to Springsteen still lurk around every corner.
“Supersoaker” kicks things off in lukewarm fashion; though on paper it is an Aha Shake Heartbreak-style track through and through, it is delivered with the same radio-friendly restraint that made their last album so unstirring. It is frustrating to hear quite an energetic track arrive through the speakers so flimsy, so insubstantial. Are they striking their instruments deliberately feebly? Or is it the production that makes it so wishy-washy? Whatever the explanation, a slight breeze and this song (among others on Mechanical Bull) would be blown away.
Thankfully, around half the tracks here are great, either packing more punch than “Supersoaker” or doing 'delicate' more fruitfully. “Don't Matter” is the song that delivers on the promise of Queens of the Stone Age influence, its fuzzy guitars and spooky chorus in a similar vein to Rated R. Elsewhere, “Temple” is a widescreen pop song worthy of a spot on Only By The Night, just as “Family Tree” and “Tonight” could have easily been late-album highlights on Because Of The Times.
These memorable songs ultimately outnumber the forgettable ones – the watery ballad “Wait for Me” probably being the worst offender. But still, it doesn't quite feel like enough. Kings Of Leon have failed to explore enough new territory, or do anything particularly exciting with the sounds already in their repertoire. The lads have certainly taken a step in the right direction away from Come Around Sundown, but said step could've – should've – been larger.
Now that they're out of hibernation and on an upwards trajectory, perhaps “heavy” and “experimental” will be words we'll associate with their next album. Until then, we've got Mechanical Bull. It's good, but far from great.