Kings of Leon are not the most fashionable band to fall in love with right now. It's understandable really, after enduring ear bleeding renditions of ‘Sex on Fire’ at every party, shopping mall or commercial break for the past four years [fact – it’s one of the ten biggest UK singles of the millennium], it's not been difficult to forget the Kings were once heralded as rock's saving sons. Three sons to one mother, that is, Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill – all also descendants of grandfather Leon, geddit, and preacher-father Ivan – plus cousin Mathew brought in on guitar for good measure. Together, these Oklahoma hillbillies caused a stir a decade back, adding a distinctly fresh indie kick to barnstorming Southern bumpkin rawk over two great albums, before finding the stadiums with albums three and four, alienating the more discerning hipster fans who made them famous in the first place.
But now the hipsters may be KoL’s best hope of salvation, following a period of unrest which has left the band awash in the stadium-sphere. Their fifth LP, 2010’s Come Around Sundown, failed to produce a hit, and the band pulled the plug midway through their 2011 US tour amid problems with addiction and infighting, announcing a formal hiatus later that year to work through their issues chemical and personal. To say there’s a lot riding on LP number six would be no exaggeration.
Which perhaps explains why the quartet has decided to play it so safe with Mechanical Bull. Stripping back to the same bedroom aesthetic of their 2003 debut Youth & Young Manhood, in places the record glimmers and brimmers with the kind of lo-fi barnstorming rock we once loved Leon’s grandsons for so. Opener ‘Supersoaker’ shines with their trademarked ragged, jangly guitars and clumping, log-chopping basslines, while there’s the woozy Muscles Shoals swagger of a late night pool hole to ‘Rock City’, sporting lyrics dumb enough to match the title. Single ‘Temple’ meanwhile is a slab of MOR rock at its finest, a sense of unfulfilled desire wafting over muted powerchords like cheap aftershave, Caleb’s wavering high-note chorus refrain aimed squarely at FM play.
Not everything is so successful: Knocked off 12-bar blues ‘Family Tree’ reeks of filler, and ‘Wait for Me’ is soulsearching, windswept MTV rock at its least memorable. But really it’s a loss of tempo that trips this staggering bull up, a promising product which is weighed down by overabundance of radio-ready ballads – we count five from 11. By the time calculated tear-jerker-closer ‘On the Chin’ winds up, you’re likely to find your appetite for fist-pumping false sentiment utterly exploited.