Day 161: Kings of Leon Made a Really Good Record… And It Has A Ridiculous Name
by Tom Noonan
Kings of Leon named their new album Mechanical Bull. If you didn’t read that last sentence as a punch line, then you probably (a) like Kings of Leon a whole lot, (b) don’t know who Kings of Leon are, or (c) know who Kings of Leon are but don’t care about them enough to form an opinion. While all these options are logical, most people probably fall in a fourth category, what I’ll refer to here as “(d)”, made up of those people who like Kings of Leon just OK. People in this category understand why people love Kings of Leon but can also recognize why so many people don’t. They get the Mechanical Bull joke. And they’re all about to feel pretty fucking stupid for laughing.
I should come clean here and say I probably fall in the (d) category. I like Kings of Leon just a step above OK, which is to say that I think “Closer” is a genuinely great song and Aha Shake Heartbreak a solid album. I also think “Use Somebody” is about as passable as radio-gazing can get and that “Sex on Fire” is lyrically off-putting and kind of lazy, but, hey, so is Babel. I’ve never thought of their success as particularly earned, but I’ve always understood it. They make rock music for people who don’t particularly like rock and roll, who think “Baba O’Reilly” is called “Teenage Wasteland”. They’re easy to digest, a lighter option for people who forget why Kurt Cobain wore flannel. It’s what “Dad rock” should refer to.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Sure, songs like “Crawl” or “Pyro” would get accused of violating the academic integrity of an undergraduate songwriting class, but they’d also never be found guilty of anything. There’d be nothing to pin them on because even when Caleb Followill sounds like he’s channeling Mick Jagger, he still comes off like someone who has never heard Exile on Main Street.
This might be what I struggle with the most when I listen to KoL, especially Only by the Night, the complete whitewashing of rock history they allow for, as if they are the first people to wield both blues chords and bass drums the size of churches. I’m not sure I would feel this way if KoL weren’t as successful. If, say, I was the only one I knew who owned Only by the Night, I’d probably love the record a whole lot more and find it’s vacuous heart haunting. But that’s not how it worked out, and Kings of Leon were, very recently, one of the most popular, and therefore most important, bands in the world for a while, and they’ll always be remembered in that way. They’ll be included in the definition of post-millennial rock. They might even be pictured. And they named their most recent album Mechanical Bull. You’d be crazy not to be worried, right?
Turns out that no, fuck you, you’re crazy, because Mechanical Bull is really, really, actually good. It might even be great. I’m still comprehending it, the pace, the density, the organic songwriting. It doesn’t sound like a Kings of Leon record. It needs to be played in a bar, not in front of a strobe light. I guess they must’ve called it Mechanical Bull for a reason. It’s also, most notably, not unstuck from time; you can hear the history, those echoing good vibrations. And then you can see Caleb Followill tearing a hole right in the middle.
And “Supersoaker”? Are you kidding me? They called a song that? They called that song that? That speeding, furious General Lee of a song? I can’t tell if they deserve how good this record is, if they understand exactly what they’ve done, or if they just kind of, you know, got lucky. It also doesn’t really matter because now they have this record, and if Mechanical Bull is what a majority of people think of when they hear the term “post-millennial rock”, I’m ok with it.
Listen to “Supersoaker” below: