The make-or-break moment on Kings of Leon’s sixth LP is “Comeback Story,” a grandiose, slow-burning arena-rock anthem built on lonely guitar twang, a ghostly choir, and (what?) pizzicato strings. Depending on what kind of fan you are, it’s either the band’s syrupy tipping point — or their maximalist masterpiece.
Really, it’s both. The Followill boys aren’t the same scrappy backwoods teens who once earned the title “Southern Strokes,” haphazardly garnishing their power chords with hormonal rebellion. Their evolution has been subtle, but substantive: They’ve embellished their sound with bits of fractured art-rock (2007′s Because of the Times), glossy pop-rock (2008′s Only By the Night), and honest-to-gosh country (the mellower bits of 2010′s Come Around Sundown). But with Mechanical Bull, they’ve managed to synthesize all these elements (and some unexpected new flourishes) in ways that feel fresh and vibrant.
The main catalyst is a practical one: Bull arrives after a three-year interim, their longest to date. Following his now-infamous drunken stage tantrum in 2011, frontman Caleb sobered up and started a family. It can’t be a simple coincidence — Mechanical Bull is their most clear-headed and well-rounded album to date. First off, it’s richer sonically. Where Come Around Sundown sounded stifled and squashed, Bull is a full-blooded beast. There’s added muscle to Jared’s bass and brother Nathan’s reliably dextrous drums; Matthew’s psychedelic guitar spasms now reach an Edge-like grandeur only hinted at previously.
More impressive is the album’s sprawling breadth. For the first time in years, they sound liberated from the expectations of what a “Kings of Leon album” should sound like. Instead, they seem to simply be enjoying the process of crafting their songs: From the blistering power-punk riffs on “Don’t Matter” to the atmospheric power-ballad “Beautiful War” to the funky, swampy blues strut of “Family Tree,” they’ve hit a bull’s-eye on every target.