Release Date: Oct 19, 2010
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Kings of Leon, those Tennessee-bred champions of whiskey, women, and whomp-whomp guitars, spent years Method-acting their roles as the tight-pantsed swains of Southern rock. And on their fourth album, 2008’s Only by the Night, they finally hit the jackpot — selling out stadiums, squinting broodily from glossy magazine covers, grasping Grammys in both hands. That the Followill clan got there, in part, by abandoning much of the loose-limbed Skynyrd-y hedonism of their earlier stuff for somber U2 gravitas is probably keen calculation.
Only By the Night was the album that put Kings of Leon in a bind, albeit one that many bands would love to find themselves in. Having ascended to – gasp – mainstream popularity, the band members recoiled from their fame, deeming their hit song which was the catalyst of their commercial success to be “a piece of shit” and describing their fanbase as “not fucking cool.” Some of us wanted to tell Caleb to shut-up. Your biggest problem is you have too many fans? Sold too many records? Please.
Kings of Leon has amped up the “revival” half of their revival-rock offerings for Come Around Sundown, easily casting off the anthemic, U2-tinged stylings of Because of the Times and Only By the Night for a sound that is altogether more greasy, wincing, and workmanlike. Gone are the stadium riffs and wanderlust, along with the world-conquering snark that, at least on Only By the Night, started to slowly and monstrously turn from standard rock bravado to grating self-aggrandizement. Instead, Come Around Sundown is a tired record, pining in anguish for a home back South, an uneventful day off, and—on some weary, underlying level—a way to escape.
Nuke the fridge. Jump the shark. Hurdle the monkey. Whatever. There inevitably comes a moment in a huge band’s career where they lose their common touch and become slightly ridiculous. With [a]Oasis[/a] it was [b]Noel Gallagher[/b] visiting 10 Downing Street – then releasing ‘[b]Be Here Now ….
The answer? Well, none of these songs are as blatantly commercial as “Use Somebody,” but none have the artsy, Appalachia-meets-London charm of Aha Shake Heartbreak, either. After touring in support of Only by the Night for two years, the guys are acutely aware that loud, booming anthems are the best way to fill a stadium, and Come Around Sundown is engineered to sound as immense as possible. Nowhere is this more evident than in Caleb Followill’s choruses, most of which seem to revolve around sustained high notes, and Matthew Followill’s guitar lines, which split their time between moody textures and cyclic, reverb-heavy riffs.
Less than 30 seconds in to “The End”, the first song on their new full-length, I had an uncomfortable flash. The lyrics, those that are decipherable through Caleb Followill’s marble-mouthed delivery anyway, reminded me of the same kind of small town, big dreams, fist pumping, mock-Springsteen anthems which became popular radio fodder in the late ‘80s. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away: Kings of Leon, with their tight trousers, pointy shoes, sleeveless tops and earnest lyrics are one can of Aqua Net away from turning into a Bon Jovi tribute band.
Kings of Leon used to be the best thing in a bad situation. Their arena alt rock with a translucent indie vibe was perfect for radio, and we could rely on them to push Nickelback out of an airtime slot. Then came 2008's Only By The Night, a surprisingly good effort for a nothing-to-brag-about bro band. The Followill boys were experimenting and started leading us somewhere.
Before we get to its musical contents, let us linger over the sleeve of the Kings of Leon's fifth album. The leaves of a coconut tree hang languidly in soft focus, while on the back, the Tennessee quartet themselves stand on the sands, gazing out towards what looks like a tropical sunset. It looks like something released in 1975, covered in the imagery bands once used to telegraph their ascendance to the rock aristocracy and send out the message: we are rich, we are famous, we've swapped the dank air of Aylesbury Friars for the kind of places people like you will only ever get to see when the Bounty hunters go searching for paradise in the ad breaks during World of Sport.
If you had to single out a band as the embodiment of everything supposedly small-stakes and emotionally bankrupt about indie rock culture, who would it be? I imagine you wouldn't pick the almost painfully sincere and Billboard-topping Arcade Fire, but you're not Caleb Followill. Despite Only By the Night's elevating Kings of Leon from self-imagined superstars to actual superstars, Followill has spent the leadup to the release of Come Around Sundown in attack mode, throwing ill subliminals at Richard Reed Parry (the dude with the helmet), preemptively turning down Glee, and calling their breakout hit "Sex on Fire" a "piece of shit," the message being "look at these effin' hipsters, we're the real deal. " Aw-shucks posturing aside, KoL have always been savvy about how they position themselves, and this is a classic political move: galvanizing a majority with a sense of victimhood.
"I got your money but I want you so" pleads Caleb Followill during 'No Money's vapid chorus. By the fourth listen it sounds like "I got your money but I want your soul", a subliminal afterthought that perfectly sums up what this record and its creators have been lacking for some time. Kings Of Leon see, are the bitter taste of what the music industry is all about.
This is the Kings graciously accepting their ceremonial mainstream robes. Mark Beaumont 2010 Kings of Leon’s rise has always been accompanied by a ramshackle charm. No matter how big the gig, there was never a ‘show’ beyond a set of grainy black’n’white screens. That, or the occasional shower of pigeon droppings.
“Radioactive”, the new single off of Kings Of Leon’s fifth album, Come Around Sundown, will be the only track you’ll remember. I’m not sure if the band is going through a very early mid-life crisis or if they’ve made a conscience choice to keep every track as mellow as possible. Where are the rockers we love so much? Songs such as “Black Thumbnail”, “Molly’s Chambers”, and “Four Kicks” seem a thing of the past.