Here’s a demonstration of telekinesis: “This album isn’t relevant,” you thought as you clicked onto this article, “an ‘after the dust settles’ review hardly seems necessary.”
You’re right in many ways, and hopefully this makes you feel better regarding the violation of your mind being read.
In the year that was 2013, Kings of Leon’s Mechanical Bull was irrelevant, and in the annals of music history it will be lucky to be a footnote. But it IS important. Why? Because this is where the flame was extinguished. This is where even the most die-hard KOL fan had to admit that the band would never get it back. Mechanical Bull was proof that the Followill boys weren’t driven by realizing their full creative potential.
I was asked in 2007 to name my top-five favourite bands. After the usual posturing about the immense difficulty of the question – the context etc – Kings of Leon made the cut. Not favourite bands of the moment. OF ALL TIME. There was a feeling that they were doing great things. They were so full of energy, so alive, so fun. This feeling was not mine alone.
The commercial and critical success of 2007’s Because of the Times – along with the excitement generated from 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood and 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak – made the anticipation for 2008’s Only By The Night monstrous. I distinctly remember Australian alt-music radio juggernaut Triple J – a radio station that would not touch them now – playing Only By The Night in its entirety in a special sneak preview. All my friends listened, and all my friends were excited – they loved it, I loved it. When the inevitable backlash hit mammoth single Sex on Fire I remained steadfast in my defence, but deep down I knew both the song and album were lackluster. It was fine, but the musical evolution that permeated their first three releases was missing.
KOL had a distinct sound. Southern-twang come garage-rock. Swinging-dick swagger with southern charm. This sound was familiar over their first three records, but it wasn’t identical. Mechanical Bull for the most part – like Come Around Sundown before it – is a collection of songs not good enough for Only By The Night.
In reality, it seems obvious that there was a lot of getting caught in the moment circa 2003-2008. The last two artistic efforts from Kings of Leon as a whole, Talihina Sky and Mechanical Bull, 1 solidify Liam Gallagher’s assertion that “they’ve gone for the bucks.”
It’s true – they have sold-out. Before we get critical (and we will) it’s important to acknowledge why.
Documentary Talihina Sky was released in 2011 after album Come Around Sundown was inflicted upon us. The film combines home videos, archival footage, concert excerpts, video clips, and interviews specifically for the film, in order to tell the story of the Followill boys.
For those who came in late: Brothers Nathan, Caleb, and Jared grew up under the watchful eye of their Pentecostal minister father in Tennessee. 2 Their upbringing was strict and penniless, at one stage living in “the worst of the worst ghetto in Oklahoma City,” as Caleb recalls.
Because of the family’s religious beliefs the boys had a strict upbringing; denied television and repeatedly told about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Music was their release, and they were good at it. Recruiting cousin Matthew, Kings of Leon were formed.
Ivan Followill, the minister father of Nathan, Caleb, and Jared, was discovered to be an alcoholic. Divorce soon followed, and their family world imploded. While all young men go through a rebellion phase, the Follwill’s youth and young manhood – if you will – saw them sell thousands of records, gain worldwide adoration, and become poster boys for a so-called rock revival in the early-to-mid 2000’s
They had more money and freedom than they could ever dream of, and were determined to never go back to their derelict lifestyle. Caleb reinforces this in Talihina Sky when he says:
“Being poor isn’t fun, it’s embarrassing, its one of those things that you strive to get out of, strive to never have your family go through…My kids will not live their lives with this shame and humiliation.”
It’s for this reason we find the lads where they are in 2014, yet three quotes from Talihina Sky show that the boys in 2011 were uncomfortable with the path they had chosen – that of continued commercial success:
Caleb: We had someone come down from the label and we played them some tunes. As soon as he pointed out ‘that should be a single…that should be a single’ I felt like I had just watched a smut film. It was like yuck. We’re not gonna get on the radio, but maybe we’ll inspire enough kids to…turn the radio OFF and say ‘fuck you, I’m not gonna listen to that.’
Caleb again: Nowadays it’s like why is it that it’s the radio format to have something that is just so watered down and so corny
Nathan: The thing that sucks, though, is all the shitty music we have to listen to before they play your song. Like…every time I get in the car…there’s songs on that are so annoying, and I’m like ‘who the fuck is listening to this shitty station in my car?’ Then I realize it’s me…listening to the stations that now play our music.
That initial discomfort has dissipated. If we call Only By The Night the crossroads, the two directions – and motivations – the band could embrace were:
– With mainstream success attained, it now must be maintained.
– Continue to experiment with the sound that brought them to the summit.
The two options are not mutually exclusive, but you wouldn’t know that from Kings of Leon post-2008. The Kings wouldn’t be the first artists to be confronted with this fork, nor would they be the first to see their creative freedom shackled by commercial triumph. Perhaps they were frightened they had reached their creative peak, or maybe the well-documented infighting had made growth impossible. All we know for sure is that they chose option one almost exclusively – for their families, and also because they now had a life to which they had grown accustomed.
Mechanical Bull has the following permeation throughout : “Yes we sold-out, we acknowledge it but we did it for solid reasons. Our families still love us and you should too! Here, this is what you like about us…take some more.”
Look at the opening lyrics to Rock City;
I was running through the desert
I was looking for drugs,
And I was searching for a woman
Who was willing to love,
So I could take her like a woman.
Yeah take her like a woman.
I was looking for a bad girl
Looking for a bad boy,
Someone who could take all the night away.
Oh baby I could shake it like a woman.
Yeah shake it like a woman
They are still talking about the times they had on Aha Shake Heartbreak, only without conviction. This is paying lip-service to what made them exciting as youngsters. Bands can and should grow-up, so don’t just pretend you haven’t.
The band would deny this assertion. They believe they have progressed, developed. In a 2013 Rolling Stone article, Matthew gave us this attention grabbing quote:
“We used to grow our hair out really long, wear tight clothes – we were being kind of fake back then…Now we’re just normal and comfortable with ourselves.”
“God, I hate it. And I can barely listen to our first and second records. It’s very cringe-worthy for me. To me, Because of the Times is like our first record. We were finally being ourselves.”
It’s just a damn shame. I call them now, baby, and I want their ‘fake’ selves to come running – not this tepid ‘authentic’ version.
‘Cause it’s always the same/And I’m always the same, snarls Caleb without a hint of irony on Don’t Matter. The Followills would like you to think this is a knowing look at contemporary America, and indeed their own lives. It’s not defiant, it’s defeatist. It’s lazy and unimaginative. Over their first three albums there was an evolution. Now they are unwilling to challenge themselves – they are comfortable in complacency. Only By The Night had insane mass appeal. They were arguably second only to Coldplay for biggest band in the world status in 2009. Now they follow a formula, and the results are somewhat insulting. It’s The Hangover Part 2.
The now obligatory combination of echoing guitar cords and orchestral backing is represented here by Tonight. A variation is also found on Comeback Story, a song with the chorus I walk a mile in your shoes/ Now I’m a mile away/ And I’ve got your shoes. This is not served-up as the old joke it is either, it’s intended to be cute and/or profound. Give me strength.
Comeback Story, along with tracks like Wait For Me and the insufferably unsubtle Beautiful War, serve to convey those ‘solid reasons’ mentioned previously. Family comes first and YOU as a fan are family – we’re gonna stick by each other despite the fact we aren’t giving you our best.
Family Tree is an attempt to get back to some Youth and Young Manhood roots. It’s a nice try, but this band was never about nice tries. That was saved for the wave of imitators Kings of Leon spawned, but unfortunately nowadays the real deal fall into the category of Kings of Leon-lite – very lite.
There is one song on Mechanical Bull that is a saving grace: Supersoaker. It’s a fun song with the driving sound of yesterday, and has a lovely, catchy build-up to a rollicking finish – the sound of the boys in unison crying awaaaaaaaaay.
Supersoaker is to Mechanical Bull what Pyro was to Come Around Sundown – a demonstration that the lads still had an ability to create genuine music. The last 90 seconds of Pyro feel like a windows-down drive along the exact palm-treed stretch of water to which Come Around Sundown’s album cover invites us. Pure bliss, but it’s as if by accident. Come Around Sundown just….it just sucks. As crude as that sounds in writing, there is no better word for it. Come Around Sundown sucks, and Mechanical Bull manages to be a harsher disappointment. The glimmer of hope, the feeling that this family mightn’t be finished, actually decreases on this record. 3 My motivation is gone too soon…Act like you mean it. These are among the first words spoken on the entire album. Despite the worth behind the reasons for their conformity, these words are exactly what should be told to them – please don’t treat what you do as a job. Act like you mean it.
The biggest problem with this latest album is a simple one: The music isn’t very good. Red Morning Light, Happy Alone, Trani, California Waiting, Molly’s Chambers, Slow Night So Long, King of the Rodeo, Taper Jean Girl, Milk, The Bucket, Four Kicks, Knocked Up, On Call, Black Thumbnail, My Party, True Love Way, Fans – That’s 17 songs from their first three albums I would consider great.
From their next three? Closer, Cold Desert…..maybe Crawl, and Pyro. Zero from this album. Tellingly, only one song would make it into the ‘good’ category.
In British television comedy The IT Crowd, Chris O’Dowd wore a now famous ‘music i like’ t-shirt.
Kings of Leon were once darlings of people who would wear this shirt. Now they personify those people’s ultimate fear for their favourite band. They have fallen into the middle of the above Venn diagram. They are a punchline. They are joked about and mocked by musical elitists. No-one wants to be seen as a High Fidelity rock snob, but no-one wants their band to become a cause of disdain to this clique either.
In closing, a reminder of the glory days:
Neither of these videos may seem particularly amazing, but look at the confidence, the strut, the nonchalant energy (if such a thing exists). Look at Caleb’s beautiful earnestness as he sings King of the Rodeo. These videos demonstrate just how fucking cool these guys were.
Now, I give you their latest video for single Temple:
It’s a home-movie; one that exemplifies what the band is about today. It features their families – mothers, wives, children. It shows to fans that these are the most important people to KOL. For them, they’d “take one in the temple.” We get it, family is the most important thing, and this is a contention it is almost impossible to argue against. Surely, though, there was some way to blend providing for your kin and exploring your creative possibilities.
From where Kings of Leon have come from, their determination to maintain mainstream success is in many ways an admirable and understandable ideal. But admirable, understandable ideals didn’t get them where they are now. Once they were as unhinged, and as free as a rampaging bull. I can’t help but be disappointed that they’ve chosen to go through the motions – to be content to exist as a mechanical bull.
Zac Strevens is Editor-In-Coost of Podcoost.com. After previously calling Melbourne and London home, he currently resides in Montreal, where he is either sweating or freezing. His work has been published in Inside Football.