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The Followill family four-piece released their latest album, Mechanical Bull, after lead vocalist and frontman Caleb Followill, bassist Jared Followill, and drummer Nathan Followill came together with their guitarist cousin Matthew Followill in 1999 to create Kings of Leon. Although they remain somewhat true to their native Nashville, Tennessee sound, they are famous for rocking and rollicking these southern roots with a wide variety of other styles to create their own, beautiful sound.
Quite a few Kings of Leon fans were unimpressed with Kings of Leon’s 2008 release Only by the Night. The album quickly reached the top of Billboard Charts in the United States and England, undeniably thrusting the band into a worldwide spotlight and polarizing their fan base. Although popular tracks from the album like “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” were not inherently evil in any way, they definitely veer down a different path than the well-loved “Milk” or “King of the Rodeo” from Kings’ 2004 release, Aha Shake Heartbreak.
2010’s Come Around Sundown beautifully straddled both schools of thought, yet its promotion fueled internal issues that caused great suffering. A concert promoting the album in Dallas in 2011 was halted half-way through due to what a band representative described as, “Caleb Followill suffering from vocal issues and exhaustion.” In reality, Caleb announced to the Dallas audience, “I’m gonna go backstage for a second, I’m gonna vomit, I’m gonna drink a beer, and I’m gonna come back out and play three more songs.” That never happened, and to much dismay, the show ended prematurely. Jared tweeted the morning after the mess, “Dallas, I cannot begin to tell you how sorry I am. There are internal sicknesses & problems that have needed to be addressed.” And then later that day he added, “I love our fans so much. I know you guys aren’t stupid. There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade.” The rest of the US tour was cancelled consequently.
This diabolical mixture of internal and external struggle with substance and fame certainly left a big question mark in people’s minds about Kings of Leon – but here we are – and here is Mechanical Bull.
The album’s first single (and eventual first track) “Supersoaker” was released on July 17, reviving the band’s fan base for a familiar sound. As the track opens, it gloriously combusts. Matthew leads the way absolutely ripping the track apart on guitar, while drums and bass then follow in tandem, entering into “Supersoaker” in full. With belting choruses and powerful danceability, it’s a sound you know and love from Kings of Leon. Its debut at the Governor’s Ball music festival in New York this June could not have been more well received in mudslinging glory that I must admit I was a large part of.
The single hints at a theme of sentimentality I couldn’t quite pinpoint before I listened to Mechanical Bull in entirety. Caleb teases a flat statement: “I don’t mind sentimental girls and times” all through the track and then delves into Kings’ tumultuous past and future in the rest of the album.
At first glance, Mechanical Bull is easy. It’s fun and dancey and full of Southern-rock anthems that feed you exactly what you want to hear. Tread deeper and it’s so much more than that; fall into the trap that the band concocted for you, and you will not regret it. Caleb Followill yearns and you yearn with him. He reminisces, and you conjure up memories you may never have even had. Songs like “Beautiful War” and “Wait For Me” hit heartstrings and inspire goosebumps of old, while “Rock City” and “Comeback Story” are autobiographically motivated.
Moving in slow ballad, void of cheap drops and catch-easy progression, “Beautiful War” is one of the best things Kings of Leon has ever created. The song puts forth a modest yet iridescently moving statement in such a natural way – I still can’t quite get over it. Caleb breaks your heart loud and true with each chorus, “I say, love don’t mean nothing / Unless there’s something / Worth fighting for / It’s a beautiful war,” while Jared anchors the sentiment brilliantly with his perpetuating bass lines.
Bestselling “Wait For Me” is an earnest masterpiece. The instrumentation is simple but catchy and yearning, much like Because of the Times’ “Fans” or Come Around Sundown’s “Pickup Truck”. Every aspect of “Wait For Me” is tantalizingly perfect, leaving you wanting for nothing, and yet wanting more of everything from the short, three and a half minute track while “It’s all better now, it’s all better now / Wait for me, wait for me” riddles through your brain over and over.
From the very first measure, “Rock City” pulls you down south. You’re pushing those half-swinging saloon doors (that might be way more Western than Southern – but you’re doing it anyway) and swaying in swing with Kings of Leon as they tell you their story. Throughout the song, Followill sings about wanting to go back home to this place, Rock City, where he feels at home, where his love lives, where everyone knows him. He sings each chorus, “I go back to Rock City / That’s where she saw me / Everybody’s seen her / Everyone believes me.” Critics and fans alike frowned upon the band’s transition into the pop limelight, sacrificing stylistic originality and real rock for popularity and sales. Their success after these releases was undeniable, yet caused a severe rift in the band due to alcoholism. Followill touches on this with the verse: “I’ve been several miles and plenty more / And I found myself face-first on the floor / Searching for something / But never finding something.” “Rock City” doesn’t conclude with any concrete resolution on where Kings is or where they’re headed – but hey – it’s only the second song on the album.
While “Rock City” illustrates a return to Kings of Leon’s roots, “Comeback Story” subtly challenges perspective as it is commonly seen. The track mainly illustrates the idiom of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or that you don’t truly know someone until you’ve seen things from their perspective. Along with this motif, Followill exposes a darker perspective when the spotlight is turned on himself, his band, wearing his own shoes. He sings slow and sad, “The brighter the lights they’re burning out / Everyone says it’s a lovely sound,” as if he is questioning the truth of their ‘lovely sound’. However, he seems to be largely unmoved by life and criticism: “I’ve been told ‘don’t believe everything is alright’ / I break with the day and I bend with the night,” rolling easily with the good and bad in his life. “Race isn’t over to the finish line / It’s a comeback story of a lifetime” – Followill sings, and I can’t help but assume it’s theirs.