Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Don't tempt the headline writer: Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull

Look, I know the rules well enough: if you're going to write a review of someone's album, make it personal and don't nick someone else's jokes. But I can't ignore these words of genius by the NME's Leonie Cooper at the outset of her review of Mechanical Bull, the sixth and, at one point, unlikely, new album from Kings of Leon:

"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."

Hats off, Ms. Cooper.

So let's turn back the clock exactly ten years. It's the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving 2003, and I'm marching up Broadway in New York, through the crowds swarming to see the next morning's Macy's parade inflatables being blown up, to reach the Tower Records at the Lincoln Center before it shuts for the night. The reason I've walked more than 20 sweaty blocks uptown is that I've finally given in to all the hullabaloo about Youth And Young Manhood, the debut album from a quartet of three brothers and their cousin from Nashville.

My interest is seasoned by the intelligence that the Folowill clan (the jury is still out at this point as to whether their backstory - sons/nephew of a Tennessee preacher, Christian names like 'Caleb', 'Jared' and 'Nate', copious beards - isn't one big ruse) are heralding a revival of southern blues, Allman Brothers or a Skynyrd with a twist for the early 2000s. I'm not disappointed.

The music is quirky, the singer is squeaky, the shirts are plaid, and at risk of horrendous Southern stereotyping, there is something slightly Deliverance about it all. But it's infectious stuff, all circuitous riffs, plenty of garage fuzz and minimalistic lyrics that appear to be repeated over and over before moving on to the next song where the process is repeated. Indeed, the process is repeated on the next two albums, Aha Shake Heartbreak a year later, and Because Of The Times in 2007.

And then Only By The Night happened. Or, rather, Only By The Night was released, and with it a succession of hit singles - Sex On Fire, Use Somebody and Notion. In spirit, the formula hadn't changed much, but in the time-honoured tradition of your rock and your roll, chart success changed everything. Grammys followed, along with a significant bump up in live audience numbers.

Long before Adele cornered the market in retail ubiquity, you couldn't walk into a shop without hearing the yell of "YEAAAAAHHHHHH!!!! My sex is on fiyah!!", even if most people didn't fully understand how ones gender could be combustible.

That the Kings of Leon have released a sixth album at all is a cause for reflection. While touring their fifth album, Come Around Sundown, in the summer of 2011, singer Caleb Followill abruptly left a concert in Dallas, significantly worse for wear from, it was assumed, drink, and didn't return. The band cancelled all gigs henceforth and that appeared to be that. By last summer, however, KOL's "hiatus" appeared to be ending, with news of new material being worked on and, Caleb, being fully rehabilitated from what ever had afflicted him (overdoing it, was the common conclusion).

Having, then, caused their newfound teenage fans to fear the Kings Of Leon may have abdicated altogether, the arrival of Mechanical Bull is a mixed blessing. For a start, there's that title. You've got to have tianium cojones to risk the snarkiness of headline writers if it's a flop. It isn't, but...

There's no doubting KOL have a unique formula, musically at least, but six albums in there's a reluctance to really tinker with it. Caleb's vocals still squeak like a cartoon moonshiner, they still have beards and copious head hair, and the metronomic 'Amish boogie' riffs prevail. There is, though, something noticeably looser about this album. The progression from club to stadia can be charted in their albums' own journey from quirky upstart blues to more expansive stadium rock, and there are no new real shocks to be had here.

Which doesn't make Mechanical Bull a bad album. Actually it's quite good. The opener, Supersoaker, contains plenty of the chug-a-bug that made their first two albums such a novel pleasure, while Don’t Matter gives it a big old dose of classic rock radio, just in time for Rocktober.

Beautiful War hints at stadium balladry, but just stops short of all-out schmaltz and is actually quite a pleasant song about love and relationships. However, there are more slow ones on Mechanical Bull than a ballroom dancing night for hip replacement patients. Comeback Story, maybe another attempt at heartstrings-a-tug, Nashville-style, with a hint of Harry Nilsson and a title that just invites comment on the Kings' own 'odd' couple of years since their last outing.

When they were last with us there was a very real risk the Kings of Leon were going to turn into the next U2 or, worse, Coldplay. The signs were there, the stadium audiences were there too. U2 learnt their lesson smartly: become the biggest rock band in the world, have a phenomenal hit album that buys them into American audiences, but then come back with a follow-up that confounds and excites in equal measure.

The Kings of Leon haven't done that here. This is not their Joshua Tree. It's good and, ignoring the inevitability of it becoming this year's WASP dinner party soundtrack, all its rough edges haven't been smoothed off. But it would be great if, when the Followill clan return next time, they do so with their Achtung Baby, and the sort of obtuseness the album I walked up Broadway to buy had by the bucketload.

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