You either like Caleb Followill’s singing or you don’t. For some, the Kings Of Leon frontman’s lived-in, scratchy twang adds a layer of emotional depth and soulfulness to the band’s otherwise highly polished songwriting; other people wish just he’d stop honking and yelping and wailing all over the place. It was fine when Kings Of Leon were a bunch of hard-drinkin’, ruckus-causin’, shaggy-haired whippersnappers from the Deep South, playing dirty garage-blues rock and looking delighted just to be out of Nashville. Back then, it was endearing. (And how many hours did the world collectively waste trying to work out what the fuck the lyrics to Four Kicks were? Something about a yard and a catfight? To this day, no one knows.)
A decade on, it’s beginning to grate. The Followills ain’t no posse of sheltered Southern preacherman’s sons any more: Caleb and Jared are married to models, Matthew to the ex-girlfriend of an Arctic Monkey; the bourbon whiskey’s been swapped for champagne, the dodgy mop tops for slick rock star haircuts (except in the case of drummer Nathan, who sports the long-suffering demeanour of someone who would quite like to jack it all in to go and play his drums in a basement somewhere).
The band’s last album, Come Around Sundown, was a massive let-down after the stratospheric success of 2008’s Only By The Night; the Followills’ sixth outing, then, has a fair amount riding on it. Will it carry on where Only By The Night left off, smoothly wallpapering over the relative failure of its predecessor? Or will it be Come Around Sundown II: Mediocre Strikes Back?
Opening track and lead single Supersoaker doesn’t do a lot to reassure anyone whose faith has been shaken. Yes, it’s a zippy track with the echoing guitars and harmonies of something like Two Door Cinema Club, or The Maccabees at their most urgent, but we don’t want Two Door Cinema Club or The Maccabees from Kings Of Leon. We want big, glossy stadium shoutalongs, or angsty, soulful numbers, or spiky rock ‘n’ roll. But they’re at it again on Comeback Story, which could feasibly be the soundtrack for a BT advert, and on Coming Back Again; big, ambitious tracks, but lacking whatever it was about Sex On Fire that makes audiences scream themselves hoarse singing along at live shows. Tonight does comes close, picking up where the likes of Use Somebody and On Call left off – and one of the few tracks where Caleb’s howling is put to good use – but it’s a rare oasis of emotion in a sea of cod-Bruce Springsteen.
When Kings Of Leon do mine the seam of bad-attitude blues that got them noticed in the first place, Mechanical Bull is more successful. Rock City is stuffed with lethal, languid guitar licks that almost distract you from the collection of godawful clichés that are the lyrics (“runnin’ through the desert” is mentioned, as is “lookin’ for a bad girl”, “searchin’ for something” and “just tryin’ to get myself back home”). Don’t Matter is fabulously Queens Of The Stone Age-ish with its blistering, overdriven guitars and creeping, moaning harmonies; Family Tree has a sultry, twangy hook and rousing gospel-style backing vocals. Elsewhere, though, there’s just not much going on; it’s a collection of arena-track wannabes that don’t quite tug on the heartstrings as they should.
Ultimately, Mechanical Bull is an apt title for the record. It feels mechanical, a band on auto-pilot, going through the motions of songwriting and recording but with their hearts elsewhere.