Release Date: Oct 14, 2016
Record label: RCA
It's easy to forget that when Kings of Leon broke through in 2008 with Only by the Night, they were already four albums deep into their career. Buoyed by the popularity of hits "Sex of Fire" and "Use Somebody," the Tennessee four-piece transformed from ragged, post-punk upstarts into arena-bait arbiters of anthemic, mainstream rock uplift, exposing their abiding love for U2 in the process. In some ways, the tonal shift made sense to a band poised to storm the awards stages next to similarly grand-minded acts like Coldplay and the Killers.
Even a meat-and-potatoes rock band like Kings of Leon recognizes that, in 2016, the conventional album rollout is a bad move. If you’re at a certain level of superstardom, it benefits you to either drop your record unexpectedly or get all extracurricular with its promotion. Many artists do both. While the Kings probably won’t be releasing a short film or, as frontman Caleb Followill stated in a recent Billboard profile, going “full Drake” anytime soon, they’ve at least gotten a touch more avant-garde with the PR for their latest album, WALLS.
Back in 2003, when Kings Of Leon were still finding their feet as a band, the picture that adorned their rough and ready debut LP, Youth & Young Manhood, was of the quartet joined together in a mess of long shaggy hair. As time passed and the Followills saw their popularity skyrocket – especially on the back of 2008’s commercial monster Only By The Night – both their image and sound became increasingly cleaner. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that the artwork for their seventh album, WALLS, is a polished take on that original cover.
This is Kings of Leon as you haven’t really heard them before: pop-facing, channelling the guitar sounds of the 1980s. WALLS, their seventh album, starts with a song called Waste a Moment, whose chord progression packs a little nod to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. In the song’s “woah oh oh”s, in its emotive crescendo, you can detect the hand of their latest producer, Markus Dravs, who took Arcade Fire from indie striplings to anthem-mongers; his latest credit is Florence + the Machine.
"Like in a mainstream melody/Oh, I want to take you in!" sings Caleb Followill on "Wild," a pop-rock rhinestone delivering said melody with bell-toned guitars and a sing-along chorus. Sure enough, after a sleeves-up recommitment to their Southern garage-ish roots on Mechanical Bull in 2013, the band's seventh LP tries to parse what "mainstream" means right now for a bunch of true-to-their-school guitar-slingers. The result is radio-buff rock & roll that could spoon between One Republic's genre-splicing power moves and the Head and the Heart's folk-pop uplift.
Kings of Leon’s career follows a familiar trajectory from music press-championed guitar-slinging upstarts to success towards gradual disillusion. However, the southern states boys’ seventh album finds them successfully relocating their old vim and enthusiasm, and is packed with the sort of zippy verses and arena-sized choruses which resulted in Only By the Night’s global domination in 2008. Opener Waste a Moment is a sibling of shoutalong signature anthem Sex on Fire, but no worse for that.
The arena-fillers play it safe In the 13 years since the Followill clan – brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan, and cousin Matthew – first touched down in the UK amid a flurry of hair and hype, the quartet have gone on to be a planet-shagging behemoth, with all that that entails: model girlfriends, the kind of extracurricular activities that mere mortals can only dream of and a very public meltdown have all been ticked off with an almost casual ease. ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads Maturity and domestic stability sees them consolidate their position as an arena draw with this, their seventh album. Consequently, their lyrical outlook is internalised, though as evidenced by the rollicking Waste A Moment and the earworm that is Over, their ability to craft hook-laden numbers remains undiminished.
In an age not so long ago, the Kings of Leon were hugely relevant. Their first three albums were the sound of rock'n'roll vitality so badly needed in the post-internet era of music consumerism, their greasy, bearded bravado a seemingly symbol of authenticity. A few years later, it's hard to hear the swagger once identified in their anthems of whiskey and debauchery.
Say what you will about Kings of Leon: They are probably one of the last groups we’ll watch go from scrappy garage-rock origins to scoring mainstream radio hits and headlining arenas and festivals with the old-school battle-stance of two guitars, a bass, and a drumkit. They are more of an actual rock band than contemporaries like the National, or St. Vincent, or Arcade Fire—those indie titans that too transitioned from the small rooms to the big fields.
It's hard to say what it is that keeps you hoping that Kings of Leon will somehow return to their golden days of identity obscuring long hair, naughty southern swag, and shirt soaked, fireball spitting country rock that made drunk dancing an aerobic exercise. Though they've long ago morphed into an anthem blasting arena act—less fireball and more firework—you keep wishing they would rip out some good ol' get down at some point on each album. .
The myth, posited on the regular by lapsed fans and a rockist music press, is that Kings of Leon were once a great band. A familiar argument focuses on the supposed genius of 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood and quick sequel Aha Shake Heartbreak. Whatever your feelings on this stance and those records, the myth gains strength when you stack ‘em up next to what followed.
Kings of Leon’s last outing, 2013’s largely forgettable ‘Mechanical Bull’, had the band on autopilot, the record essentially a collection of KOL 101s, the imagined result of pressing some kind of denim-clad Stadium Rock button and leaving the rest to chance. ‘WALLS’, for which they broke ties with longtime producer Angelo Petraglia in favour of Arcade Fire and Coldplay knob-twiddler Markus Dravs, is an odd one. It lacks the immediate bombast of either that last LP or 2010’s ‘Come Around Sundown’, but neither is it straight-up boring.
Kings of Leon's transformation from the Southern Strokes to the Southern Maroon 5 is all but complete with their seventh album, WALLS—an acronym for We Are Like Love Songs, thus continuing the band's curious streak of five-syllable album titles. And even by the standards of the arena-pop hit-chasers they've become, and not the down-and-dirty guitar band they once were, WALLS is a grating, overly slick disappointment. Even as Kings of Leon became more and more blatantly commercial, they managed to maintain a few of their defining idiosyncrasies, like perennially stubbled frontman Caleb Followill's soupy, geographically indefinable brogue, which has resulted in some memorably weird pronunciations over the years.
Most of all though, ‘Walls’ just feels fresh. Kings Of Leon were great as a cult band, and great as a stadium band. It doesn’t matter which they do, just as long as they do it with conviction. And here they sound more focused and alive than they have for a while..
Part of me wants to cut this one some slack because the early teenage version of me, the skinny kid whose favorite band was Counting Crows, would probably have enjoyed it a lot. At this point, though, I fear I’ve grown jaded with radio-ready alternative rock. This album is too clean, even though I suppose there’s nothing wrong with it on a technical level.