In 2009, it was almost impossible to turn on the radio without encountering either “Sex on Fire” or “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon. They’d experienced success in the UK for years, but the Tennessee quartet finally had their domestic breakthrough with their glossiest and most mainstream work yet. However, the band (comprising brothers Caleb Followill, Nathan Followill, and Jared Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill) ended up cancelling their 2011 tour and took some time to unwind. Now, they claim to be in a much better headspace as a band, and the renewed sense of energy certainly comes across on their latest album, Mechanical Bull.

The album kicks off with the revved-up guitars of the lead single, “Supersoaker”, suggesting a return to form for the Followills. On their last album, 2011’s Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon delivered a number of laid-back, mid-tempo offerings that unfortunately cemented some people’s perception of the band as middle-of-the-road rockers. And while a track like “Supersoaker” might not be innovative enough to win over many new fans, it’s got the kind of catchy guitar hook and infectious rock beat that Kings of Leon built a career on, and that may be enough to rank it as one of their best songs in years.

One of the real strengths of this new album is the refreshingly ragged vocals from frontman Caleb Followill. In the wake of the Kings’ heavily produced past two albums, tracks like “Don’t Matter” feel like a return to the band’s early days as scruffy retro rockers. Their sound is certainly more polished and there are more guitar solos now, but there’s a looseness to a number of tracks on Mechanical Bull that has been absent since the band’s sophomore effort, 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak.

Even some of the album’s slower songs seem energized. The propulsive drum beat and sweeping background vocals on “Beautiful War” complement the catch in Caleb Followill’s voice perfectly, making for a slow-burning track that sneaks up on the listener with surprising impact.

Mechanical Bull offers plenty of highlights, but there are a few filler tracks. Towards the end of the album, a few of the songs start to blend together, recalling the innocuously glossy pop sheen of the band’s 2008 breakthrough album, Only by the Night. And while offering a funky bassline, “Family Tree” has a pretty generic melody and enough clunky lyrics to make for an all-around cheesy listening experience.

Lyrics generally aren’t the band’s strong suit. Take the main hook that Caleb Followill earnestly croons in the shimmering track “Comeback Story”: “I walked a mile in your shoes/ Now I’m a mile away/ And I’ve got your shoes.” Elsewhere on the album, their nostalgia-soaked odes to southern life, beautiful women, and good times with friends feel more like mathematical formulas for album sales than artistic expression.

However, there’s still something kind of irresistible about Kings of Leon’s blatantly crowd-pleasing aesthetic. They do borderline indulgent guitar solos and singalong choruses well, and with Mechanical Bull, they’ve boosted their songwriting game too. MMM½

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