Ethan and Joel Cohen once asked “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” And they got a cinematic answer. The music business phrased it a little differently: “O Brothers Followill, Where Art Thou?” And the biz, too, got an answer. The Brothers Caleb, Nathan, Jared, and Matthew Followill, the four members of Kings of Leon, are back with a new record, titled Mechanical Bull.
Mechanical Bull, KOL’s newest LP, marks a decade of professional (well, semi-professional – they are privy to dirty humor) music-making, and is an impressive anniversary album that draws on influences from each of their five previous full-lengths. Over the course of their career, KOL has evolved through various degrees of raucous Southern blues-punk, smoky folk, and more recently, styles of high-fi arena rock showcased on their breakout Only By The Night. In the void between Only By The Night‘s ubiquitous radio hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire” and the newest album, KOL released Come Around Sundown, which failed to live up to the expectations of the previous record. Mechanical Bull seems to have taken a different approach, seeing KOL move away from a militant political mode of songwriting, instead focusing on what they know how to do best: roots rock. Mechanical Bull sounds more like a well-produced combination of Aha Shake Heartbreak and Because of the Times, less interested in anthemic radio hits and more interested in an honest style of homespun rock ‘n’ roll. While the album opener “Supersoaker” does provide something by way of a radio single, the rest of the album pleasantly lacks a radio feel, as if the band made the record for the music and not for the primetime slots in the 90 and 100 frequencies.
That said, Mechanical Bull still features catchy songwriting, but in an endearing, understated way. This has the effect of not immediately making the album stand out until you listen a few times through. Midway through the album, “Temple” throws listeners back into the ’90s with an undeniably catchy four-chord indie jam. This ’90s vibe is replicated on “Wait For Me,” but with the powerful staccato drumming that is the signature of Nathan Followill’s style. “Beautiful War,” the fourth song on the album, sprawls out in a slow, warm waltz. “Family Tree” and “Don’t Matter” are both growling rock songs, dedicated to solid guitar riffing like their old material with a pleasant hint of Beck thrown in there. And then there’s “Supersoaker,” which features some of the best bass playing in pop music: not that it’s technically difficult, but it is catchy as hell.
On the whole, Mechanical Bull is succeeds in blending their styles from each previous album into one, without making a hokey or gimmicky musical patchwork quilt. Rather, it’s more like an iconic, tattered leather jacket that has a patch from each of their previous lives. The album picks up and ends where it needs to, not dragging too long or departing too soon. With repeated listens, this is an album that will grow on listeners. 3.8/5