Being a big fan of these Tennessee natives, I have had to put aside any bias to conduct as professional a review as I can.* Bear in mind I usually detest music reviews in general, for the way most of them write as if their opinion is fact, instead of opinion (I don’t need the tightly-wound dirty teenagers at NME telling me what’s cool to listen to) – so I urge you to regard this article as exactly what it is: an opinion.
The follow-up to critically lauded Redneck-rock offering “Come Around Sundown” in 2010, “Mechanical Bull” is somewhat a departure in terms of musical structure – gone is the red hot sun, while the reliable down-South rock n’ roll sound the band are known for is sustained.
“Supersoaker” is an electrifying opener, perhaps the most “mainstream” tune of the entire album, so it’s not surprising that it was chosen as the lead single. A good beat, reliably country-boy lyrics (“Down in the delta, I’m ringin’ bells”) with a jubilant tone. Are the lyrics patriotic? “I’m a supersoaker, red, white and blue on the way” does suggest an Americana declaration, but Followill’s lyrics are notorious for being taken far too seriously (calling to mind “Sex on Fire”, which many misinterpreted as having a deeper, metaphorical meaning when in fact Followill has since said it was written as a joke). Nonetheless, a strong opener.
But for me, “Rock City” is really where it kicks off. Put your Aviators on, climb into the open-top Mustang and set off on the dusty road to Memphis, because there’s no other way to listen to this tune. Soaring guitar riffs and classic rock lyrics are the epicentre of this song, a freestyling, spine-tingling anthem to beat the dashboard to. “I was runnin’ through the desert, I was lookin for drugs/I was searchin’ for a woman who was willing to love” calls to mind the best work of Jackson Browne’s pen, and showcases the band in all their Southern glory. Cameron Followill’s stratospheric slide guitar storms the track, and I challenge you to listen to this one without playing the drums on whatever surface is closest.
“Put your Aviators on, climb into the open-top Mustang and set off for Memphis, because there’s no other way to listen to this tune.”
“Don’t Matter” is a somewhat darker track, a tone of passionate frustration. “It’s always the same/ And I’m always the same” rings several times through the song, but mostly to showcase the lead guitar, which thrashes out this track to match the tone of Caleb’s vocals and ascends into a screeching riff in the middle. Whether it’s due to familial relation or natural musical cohesion, the band knows how to jam together. There is no confusion of tone here; it’s pure seamless rock. that calls to mind the early days of the band when they were just a bunch of redneck kids bashing out great music.
“Beautiful War” lends itself a more languid, easy-rock vibe, with a scintillating rhythm that ascends into an anthemic chorus. There’s that raw desperation in Caleb’s vocals, and the repetitive riff at 3:30 is fantastically symbolic of the album’s namesake, the constant ride of the “mechanical bull”. The song reaches a soaring crescendo without any prissy X-Factor choirs or key changes, just strong backing vocals and lead guitar. Though the chorus is repetitive “love don’t mean nothin’, unless there’s somethin’ worth fighting for”, the Tennessee twang gives it an irresistible war-cry tone, as the song fades out with a defeated tone that “It’s a beautiful war.” “Wait for Me” is the other slow-rock song on the album, and again it carries the theme of a journey, an internal war. The lyrics are pleading “I tried all the way” “Wait for me, wait for me”. It might be pure conjecture to think that it refers to the recent internal battle of lead singer Caleb with controlling his dependence on alcohol, which caused something of a rift in the band early last year.
“Temple” is more upbeat, and combines the band’s loyalty to both rock n’ roll and church by comparing the love of a good woman to drinking the blood of Christ with “Take wine from the temple, I take wine for you”. Or at least that’s what I could glean. Maybe it’s not. Maybe these kids wrote the song because they knew that chumps like me would read way too much into it and now they’re having a good old chuckle at me typing away on my laptop while they enjoy a couple of Coronas on the sundeck. I dunno. Whatever, it’s such a tune.
“Family Tree” is the sense of humour in the record, and showcases the band’s remaining ability to write rock n’ roll, calling back to the days of “Aha Shake Heartbreak”-the band clearly haven’t lost any of their edge just because they gave up the drugs. “I am your family tree, I know your A to Z” pleads the family in question not to listen to the “make-believe”. But the climax is when the entire band joins in on the chorus at the same time, a catchy, thumping acapella. Hot damn.
“the band clearly haven’t lost any of their edge just because they gave up the drugs.”
“Comeback Story” is lighter fare, with more delicate riffs, a whistly tone, and a lighthearted chorus line “I walk a mile in your shoes, and now I’m a mile away and I’ve got your shoes.” The snare builds up to a majestic chorus but the song has no pretension – the song doesn’t drag, it just flows. “Tonight” professes “I don’t know why i keep acting this way”, a tonal shift to images of lonely nights, hand clasped around an Old Fashioned. The growling verses contrast with the emotion in the chorus and the song alludes to the spiritual roots of the band (“Tonight, I’m gonna leave my body”) and the song fades out with the guitar in tandem.
In “Coming Back Again”, the piercing electric guitar presides, not unlike Don Henley’s 80’s stuff without the cheesy over-synthesized riffs. It makes me think of driving fast through the city, bright lights and cool breezes. It’s a grand finale, if anything, and closes the metaphorical book on “Mechanical Bull”, a collection of songs which allude to a shift in direction for the band, without veering too far from the dusty trail. Needless to say, them Southern boys have done it again, but hey, don’t take my word for it.
*Aw, who am I kidding? I love these guys. I find it especially irresistible when they play up their Redneck roots, ’cause there’s nothing like good old Southern rock n’ roll. But that’s just me.