I think I first started listening to Kings of Leon in 2008, when their album Only by the Night blew up and Sex on Fire was played on every single radio station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That kind of treatment could ruin even the best of songs, but Sex on Fire is not the best of songs, and its repetitive, boring lyrics quickly lost all meaning around the 134th listen. But I still kind of liked the grimey, rock and roll stylings of the band, and I dug into them a bit deeper.
As I went further back into their discography I liked what I heard. 2007s Because of the Times carried gems like Knocked Up and earlier albums got even better. That griminess that first pulled me in was even more pronounced in albums like 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood and 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. The guitars were wilder and dirtier and the lyrics were less and less intelligible, but more emotive and raw. For a debut album, Youth and Young Manhood is so good. Hell, for a fifth album it would have still been so good. Songs like Spiral Staircase and Holy Roller Novocaine are just fun, guitar driven, yell-along songs that plaster smiles on all who hear.
After really getting into their older albums, Only by the Night started to seem pretty tame in comparison. It was more poppy, more polished and seemed tailored to arena shows rather than the dirty dive bars that their earlier albums seemed to fit. And I guess that made sense seeing how they were selling out arenas all over the world by 2008, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were heading in a watered down direction. Once they had gotten that sweet taste of radio popularity, would they tailor their new stuff to fit into a radio mold?
My fears were confirmed when they put out Come Around Sundown in 2010. I really hate this album. Not one song hits hard. This is an easy-listening, soft rock album and it inspires nothing. Except maybe anger; Anger that a band that put out so many hard rocking, fun, whiskey-drinking songs had turned into an Eagles cover band. A shitty one.
There’s a really interesting Rolling Stone article that covers this time period. The band talks about the pressure they felt to churn out more radio hits to avoid being labelled a one-hit-wonder and how that affected the album. It shows. Did I mention I hate this album?
I had pretty much given up on the Kings of Leon at this point, and accepted that they were well down a path of radio-friendly mediocrity. Ironically, the album never gained much popularity and I was saved from having to hear it vomit its boringness at me from passing car radios.
I could still find solace in their first three albums.
Three years went by without another offering from them. Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak remained in pretty heavy rotation on my iPod, and I was okay with pretending that Kings of Leon were an old band that broke up a long time ago and never made music anymore. So when I heard about a new album coming out in 2013, I wasn’t really interested at all.
I heard the first single for Mechanical Bull, called Supersoaker, and I was intrigued. It was no Spiral Staircase and it was pretty arena-rocky, but it didn’t sound like an Eagles song. So I checked out the album.
And it is awesome. Supersoaker, the first song on the album, is probably the most poppy song and so it just gets better from there. Rock City is my favourite song on it. Packaged into a tight 2:57, the song is laid back, with a driving electric guitar riff cutting through it. It’s a good old-fashioned rock song that has some feeling to it. It’s raw and dirty and it makes you want to drive a fast car through the desert on a sunny day. It’s great.
The album isn’t perfect of course. Comeback Story is a dumb song that really doesn’t interest me. And the lyrics, “I walk a mile in your shoes, now I’m a mile away and I’ve got your shoes” are up there among the stupidest, mean-nothing lyrics written. And they keep repeating it over and over like it’s the mantra for world peace. And Take it on the Chin is pretty boring. But two out of 13 isn’t so bad.
There are actually some mean guitar solos on this album. Some real grinding, exciting guitar solos. There are still those pop sensibilities on this album, but it’s fused in with that loud, exciting, garage rock style of their earlier albums. It’s fun.
So in essence, this is a story about redemption. And about not counting a band out. Mechanical Bull has remained in rotation along with their first couple albums and I’m not sick of it yet. Only time will tell if it has the lasting power of the others, but so far so good. I’m actually looking forward to the next Kings of Leon album these days.