Fresh in our minds is the season of 2008-2009, when Kings of Leon—a band of brothers and a cousin who had already been plugging away for nearly a decade by that time—captured the world’s attention with two smash singles off their fourth album. (The album was Only By the Night, and the singles were “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody.”) Fresh in our minds, too, is the band’s unmistakable sound—a proprietary blend of 70s southern-fried rock (a-la Greg Allman and Lynrd Skynrd) and 80’s U2-Joshua-Tree-era atmospherics, overlaid by Caleb Followill’s gravel-filled voice—the sound that solidified Kings of Leon as the arena rock band of our time.
Unfortunately, that fateful on-stage unraveling of Caleb Followill in 2011, and the subsequent cancelled tour and indefinite hiatus—that’s fresh in our minds, as well. The silence that followed was deafening—a two-year-long awkward moment where no one really knew what to say, but everyone wished someone would say—or sing—something. If Kings of Leon had never played another note, no one would have thought the worse, but if they did play again, the stakes would be exceedingly high. The next songs they sang could make or break them as far as longevity was concerned.
Here’s the (very) good news: with their latest release, Mechanical Bull, Kings Of Leon have essentially made the smartest move they could have made: they pressed the reset button.
Indeed, we’re not hearing any breakthrough new sound, nor any proclamations of “we’re back, y’all, and we’re better than ever.” Instead, we’re hearing a solid, focused, slightly more mature version of what caused us to fall in love with Kings Of Leon in the first place. Searing, soul scratching guitar solos counterbalancing airy, Edge-like riffs; suggestive, smart-ass lyrics followed by soul-wrenching cries of the heart; anthemic choruses flavored with a touch of grit. All of it’s here, all of it in place.
As a record, the track progression of Mechanical Bull isn’t flawless, but it does make sense in its own context, particularly if you view it as a vinyl record. There’s a clear Side A and Side B. The first side is predictably the strongest, with assertive opening tracks “Supersoaker,” “Rock City” and “Don’t Matter” setting the stage for “Beautiful War,” one of the album’s most powerful ballads. The second half of the album takes us into a more reflective vein, almost like a sort of debriefing; here we find a few of the slightly more forgettable tunes like “Comeback Story” and “Coming Back Again” before a meaningful, pathos-filled “On the Chin” gives the album a strong closing.
Right in the middle of the album—track 6, to be exact—we find “Wait For Me,” one of the album’s most confessional moments, and a perfect transition tune between the album’s two sides. “I saw the surprise, the look in your eyes / I gave it up / Gonna be who I am, be who I am / And give it up….It’s all better now, wait for me,” sings Caleb Followill in a knowing manner.
As I suggested earlier, Mechanical Bull is not Kings of Leon’s magnum opus, their epic comeback album. But the album does represent a watershed moment for a band at the most critical crossroads of their career, bringing the assurance that there is, in fact, a future for Kings of Leon.
These are new songs, but it’s not a new sound. Instead, what we’re hearing with this record is the sound we all needed to hear: the sound of a band who have caught their breath, gotten their crap together, planted their feet, and picked up where they left off.
The awkward silence is over. We can breathe easy again.
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