Following the band's lackluster 2010 release, Come Around Sundown, and singer Caleb Followill's stint in rehab, Kings of Leon seem to be deliberately staging Mechanical Bull as a comeback album. If it isn't the "comeback story of a lifetime" that the Followill brothers claim on "Comeback Story," though, it does mostly halt Kings of Leon's seemingly inevitable movement toward unrelenting bombast while still managing to offer enough atmosphere to sound grandiose and anthemic. This is especially apparent during the vaguely misogynistic "Supersoaker" ("I don't mind/sentimental girls at times"), which appropriates the Strokesy riffs of their early work from the vantage point of arena rock, and "Family Tree," a groovy faux-funk tune that comes complete with a full backing choir and handclaps.
Although long-term collaborator Angelo Petraglia's production is always smooth, some of the bronchitic edge has returned to Caleb's delivery, especially on the feral "Rock City" and "Tonight," a swampy midtempo track that provides plenty of space for his wildcat vocals. Unfortunately, the salacious narratives and surreal metaphors of Caleb's early lyrics are largely replaced here by rock clichés ("Face on the floor and searching for something," he sings on "Rock City") and the kind of programmatic sexuality established by Kings of Leon's breakthrough single, "Sex on Fire." The glistening ballad "Comeback Story," which features the band's first, and inconsequential, backing orchestra, leavens the album's mainly turgid lyrics with some welcome humor: "I walk a mile in your shoes/Now I'm a mile away/And I've got your shoes."
"Beautiful War" finds the Followill boys borrowing riffs from U2, and album closer "On the Chin" adopts the easy patina of pop-country music, spit-shinned like a pair of cheap leather boots, but while Kings of Leon might have jettisoned their more innovative tendencies, the best tracks on Mechanical Bull are too high-octane to be labeled pedestrian. "Rock City" eschews melody in favor of fuzzy shouts and a rhythm section that chugs along in a beautifully controlled racket. Matthew Followill's guitar work on "Don't Matter," containing earth notes of Steve Jones and Josh Homme, pushes the anarchic anthem toward the inspired, supplemented by his brother's most demented shrieks in years. The band is just about out of transgressive fury, but they manage to muster enough rigor and discipline to keep Mechanical Bull kicking.