Good But Sadly Not Great: Kings Of Leon – Mechanical Bull

The Kings of Leon story is one of hair. One where long flowing Skynyrd locks meant great music but, like Samson, the music lost its power as the hair disappeared.

When Kings of Leon’s first full-length album, Youth and Young Manhood, dropped 10 years ago (christ we are all old), it did so in the face of enormous hype, especially from the Americana-obsessed UK music press. That record was a southern-tinged blues-y Rolling Stones-esque sort of thing and the band were all ’70s-era long-haired interesting mustache-bedorned worn-out t-shirt wearing dudes, and lo, it was good:

The next album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, showed the band with slightly less interesting facial hair and some of them had more of a shag haircut thing going on, and it was good, but it was no debut:

By the time they’d gone full-on arena rock (looking at you, “Use Somebody”) some people in the band had actual haircuts and were looking like, well, arena rockers:

The band went on to play those ginormous rock festivals for the next few years until they had the obligatory drink/drugs/fame implosion and they disappeared for a couple years.

They are back now, and as the Daily Mail UK helpfully points out, they have much less hair overall. Does this mean they’ve continued a downward spiral, music-wise?

Sorta-kinda maybe so maybe no. The new record, Mechanical Bull, is an odd hodgepodge of the blues-boogie stuff that highlights the band’s best qualities and the same tired arena rock that isn’t terrible but doesn’t need to exist.

The lead track and single released in advance of the full album, “Supersoaker,” is not an auspicious start in terms of the return-to-hairy-form, as it has the ginormous British festival rock wall of guitar thing going on. Songs like “Rock City” fare much better, with a steady bass line high in the mix and not buried by 1000 multitracked guitars. Also, too, honest-to-god handclaps during the breakdown. “Family Tree” has a chorus that could have been a Stones Sticky Fingers-era outtake. “Don’t Matter” is nicely rough around the edges, fuzzes out the guitars, and uses the drums as a nice crisp timekeeping device rather than a booming echo machine. But then”Comeback Story” has some unforgivably unnecessary strings and fades into the background of your consciousness no matter how many times you try to listen.

Should you buy it? If you’re a Kings of Leon completist or you dig on the Snow Patrol/U2 school of Epic Rock, sure. There’s plenty here for you. If you’re hoping for a record that has the Southern boogie-blues energy of the earlier releases, probably not so much. Maybe stream it or something instead, or just wait for the lead singer’s hair to grow back and give it another shot.

Rating: for arena rock fans, four out of five kittens with whips. For the rest of us, two out of four kittens with whips.

Kings Of Leon’s Mechanical Bull is out Tuesday on RCA.

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