A few years ago, it seemed that Kings of Leon were poised to take over the world. Arguably, they were the biggest band in the world after their hit 2008 album Only By The Night. “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” were huge hits, getting massive airtime and generally ruling the end of 2008. It featured strong, catchy instrumentals, combining driving guitar riffs with Caleb Followill’s pure, emotional voice. He shines on ballads like “Closer” and “Cold Dessert”, and his bluesy, southern voice fits well their earlier style on tracks like “California Waiting” and “The Bucket”.
One thing Caleb Followill is not, however, is a great songwriter. He has never been accused of writing insightful lyrics. Although they have moved away from their mix of Southern rock and Strokes-alternative music, their music is not incredibly imaginative either. So now, on their 6th album, it seems like the band is running out of ideas. Their new album, Mechanical Bull, is the same bland mix of mid-80s U2 alt-rock and a ballad here and there. In fact, this predictable blend is the same thing that sunk their last album, Come Around Sundown. And while Bono and the Edge have also never been accused of being great songwriters, at least they are a little more imaginative.
The album does have its highlights, like all albums which are made by musicians with this much talent. “Temple” is a rocking throwback to “California Waiting”, and “Wait for Me” is a really pretty stadium tune. But overall, this album is just mediocre. The decent instrumental work by the other members of the Followill clan (Matthew on guitar, Nathan on drums and Jared on bass) and Caleb’s piercing voice can’t make up for the lack of quality songwriting. Caleb’s lyrics are particularly brutal this time around: “I walk a mile in your shoes/ And now I’m a mile away/ And I’ve got your shoes” (contender for worst lyric of the year).
What Kings of Leon really need is a reinvention. They have reused the same formula over and over again in the early part of their career, and eventually that formula gets stale. Even bands with more talented musicians, kind of famous bands like THE BEATLES, RADIOHEAD, and THE ROLLING STONES all changed their styles multiple times. U2 are a decent comparison here. They were a band who, after emerging on the scene with a rawer style, broke out after turning more mainstream. Then they went into a decline in the mid 80s while their songwriting stagnated. Albums like Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum struggled because of their predictability. But after they became more creative with their songwriting, they made their best album, 1991’s Achtung Baby. Kings of Leon are currently in their stagnation period. They could use a reinvention, and fast. They have the talent to be a great band, one that can combine the raw talent of Caleb Followill with the polish of the band’s musicians. Until then, they will continue to release bland material like Mechanical Bull.
2.5 stars out of 5