“We are people’s favorite band. F—ing play like it.”
Kings of Leon lead singer and guitarist Caleb Followill can be seen offering those heavy words of motivation on the 2011 Kings of Leon documentary, “Talihina Sky.” The band is in the studio, seemingly working on the Only By The Night recordings, and outside of a trick of editing, specifically the track “Use Somebody.” During a frustration break, Followill solemnly speaks his mind, trying to rile up the troops, even toying with the idea that this might be the band’s last album. The only other band member in the shot is bassist, and younger brother, Jared Followill, who takes the minute to check his phone, and altogether, couldn’t appear less phased by his older brother’s introspective speech. Regardless of its immediate effect, it’s one daunting perspective to ponder when recording a new record: being someone’s favorite band, making the music he or she loves, and somehow finding a way to maintain that expectation.
Kings of Leon did manage to finish “Use Somebody,” and it went on to become a commercial breakthrough, topping charts worldwide, and creating an unprecedented level of mainstream reach in the United States. The band of three brothers and a cousin was no longer playing club shows to college kids fond of the rawer earlier releases Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak. They were now playing sold-out arenas to audiences that included moms and fourteen-year-old girls. With Only By The Night, the band’s exposure reached to just about everyone, which naturally, turned the band off to some of its early day loyalists.
How do you make everyone happy? Kings of Leon’s fifth album, 2010’s Come Around Sundown, felt as good of a compromise as any. It was a fun record, full of attractive rock ‘n’ roll melodies and inspired songwriting; a perfect album to play all the way through at a party or on the beach. No, it wasn’t a triumphant return to the southern garage-rock brashness of “Holler Roller Novocaine” or “Taper Jean Girl,” but it also wasn’t an album full of “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” radio-tailored cutouts.
With their sixth album, Mechanical Bull, The Followills still sound like a band trying to find their footing after the overwhelming mainstream success of Only By The Night. While follow-up Come Around Sundown played like an album that everyone could like, Mechanical Bull takes a more manageable role, offering to be an album where everyone can find something to like.
Fans of earlier Kings of Leon material will feel the chills early on Mechanical Bull, with the boozy, guitar-drenched intro to “Rock City.” It’s reminiscent of an earlier time for the band, and with Caleb Followill singing of “looking for drugs” and “I could shake it like a woman,” it’s hard not to glance back to Youth and Young Manhood’s beloved epic trance, “Trani.” “Rock City” by no means has the slow-burn build or cathartic, glorious finish of that track, but it’s a reminder that these are the same guys who wrote that song 10 years ago.
Fast-paced rock-out “Don’t Matter” continues the recollection of younger, long-haired Kings of Leon, the Aha Shake Heartbreak days when the boys lived by and mastered the less-than-three-minute tune. Lead single “Supersoaker” also feels nostalgic of that era, with Nathan Followill’s upbeat hammering drum work fueling the track.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mechanical Bull has its share of yearning ballads. None of which seem to be a direct “Use Somebody” sequel, but they do encompass that similar uplifting power melody. Most notably, “Beautiful War “ and “Wait For Me” capture the essence, but each still holds an uniqueness as it does catchiness.
“Tonight” is a late album gem that really doesn’t throw back to any previous albums or eras, but instead displays the newer stirring and tempered side of Kings of Leon’s ever-maturing sound. With that said, fans looking for a dirty honky-tonk blues romp can look to Mechanical Bull’s “Family Tree.” The country influence can also be heard, but to a different extent, in the tranquil and delicate “Walk A Mile.”
Throughout their 15-year career, the Kings of Leon have made an impression on several different types of fans. With Mechanical Bull, they offer something for each of them. The Followills know they’re never going to be teenagers again, messing around in a basement, still learning instruments while trying to finish their first EP. But they also never seem to have forgotten that humble beginning. So if you love them, hate them, or, once loved them and now hate them, Mechanical Bull is for you. It likely won’t be your favorite album, but what’s your favorite track?