Kings of Leon's 'Mechanical Bull' Warmly Settles Into the Conventional, Professional, and Focused

8
Mechanical Bull
Critical Mass
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Label: RCA

by Jem Aswad

The strangest thing about Kings of Leon's first album since a three-year hiatus is how much it sounds like they never left. Mechanical Bull is the sort of return-to-form album they'd make to reassure fans after a disastrous, experimental side-trip into dubstep or reggae, except there was no disastrous, experimental album preceding this one.

What did precede it, though, was the backlash that seemingly everyone except the band knew was inevitable — you just don't get as big as the band did in the wake of 2008's Only by the Night without one. But rather than quietly riding it out, the Kings took a cue from those doomed guys in The Perfect Storm and sailed straight into the maelstrom with a new album and another headlining global tour. While Come Around Sundown had its moments, the second half was half-baked and gave haters ample bait. Not long into the tour, the Kings' ship began taking on water, the sailors rebelled, lucrative ports of call were bypassed, and a craft with a less familial crew might have gone down altogether.

But a few months in drydock can go a long way. And while Mechanical Bull doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, it's by far their most seasoned album yet — and also their most conventional, professional, and focused. Kings of Leon have been releasing albums for a decade now, and as familiar as this one sounds, it begins a new chapter: With receding hairlines and several years of stardom and parenthood under their belts, this band is obviously settling in for — and setting themselves up for — the long haul.

To that end, the group embraces its status as a classic-rock band, and make no mistake, this is a classic-rock album — one that evokes the sort of denim-clad '70s-rock vibe that Guns N' Roses and Foo Fighters tapped into. It's sequenced like a vinyl record, with a very clear Side One (closing with the heart-tugging ballad "Wait for Me") and Side Two (opening with the album's only misstep, the feeble funk of "Family Tree"), and it's imbued with the sort of analog warmth you expect from Tom Petty. The songs have been labored over, but they're not labored; the idiosyncrasies in their songwriting have been smoothed out and absorbed so they no longer sound idiosyncratic. Deceptively simple, they often begin with a spare, basic chord progression that's then layered and elaborated upon, leading to arena-sized crescendos and soaring choruses before receding; starting small and getting really, really big before dimming and flickering out. The band (and longtime collaborator Angelo Petraglia) knows how to structure the songs for maximum emotional impact, repeat the key lines just the right amount of times, and milk the choruses just enough to leave you wanting more (see "Wait for Me").

The album is suitably diverse, with rockers fast ("Don't Matter," "Temple") and midtempo ("Rock City"), Joshua Tree-channeling atmospherics ("Beautiful War") and more ballady ballads than ever: The closer, "Taking It on the Chin," is a Petty-esque southern-rock bro anthem that, more than any other track on the album, clears the way for an audience to grow old with this band.

Basically, Kings of Leon have grown up. They've reached a certain skillful peak, content to downplay their innovative tendencies. If this album isn't the charismatic adolescent of 2004's Aha Shake Heartbreak or the cocksure 25-year-old of Only by the Night, then it's at least the cool uncle who'll drink beer with you after the kids have gone to bed.

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