Are Kings Of Leon still worth listening to?
A review of Kings Of Leon's eighth studio album When You See Yourself. Is it enough to pull back those who've deserted the band?
In all honesty, despite a strong February, I didn't exactly go into March with the greatest of expectations for new music releases. With the musical output seemingly lacking, and bands like The Snuts delaying their album releases 'til April, I frantically began looking around for something new to listen to. In doing so I reluctantly turned to the new Kings Of Leon record, When You See Yourself.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater of the band at all, I'm just one of these hipster types who prefers their earlier work. Album release day immediately confirmed my biases to be true. I put their eighth (!) album on and simply couldn't get into it at all.
Maybe it was the fact that it was a Friday and this clearly wasn't a Friday record, I don't know. I'll be honest and admit I gave up halfway through. Instead, I began belting out their first two albums, Youth & Young Manhood (2003) and Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004), soon bemoaning that the Tennessee family band sounded different to the garage rock, southern-twinged anthemed one they used to be ("A cryin' shame, I tell ye!" was the red neck voiced rant in my head).
Missing the old Kings Of Leon
And what a couple of albums those were. Their 2003 debut gained Kings Of Leon a level of fame in the UK that seemed unthinkable for a band so young and inexperienced (bassist Jared Followill was only 16 upon release). Speaking in Lizzy Goodman's 'Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011', drummer Nathan Followill discussed how they were living in a small condo in LA when news broke through that they'd exploded in the UK.
"The Brits had picked that up (their early singles), started playing "Molly's Chamber and "Holy Roller" and it blew up. So we're halfway through making our first record in Los Angeles and our manager said, 'Man, we got to get over there. Y'all are hot right now, we need to go over there, put a face with the music, and start making the rounds'".
Kings of Leon grew from strength to strength in the UK, resulting in a headline slot at Glastonbury Festival in 2008 after the success of their third album Because of the Times. However, it was only when the band polished up their act, went through a style makeover (and a trip to the hairdressers...), and reigned in the rawer elements of their music that they began to find success in America. 'Sex On Fire' won Best Rock Performance at the 2009 Grammys, and, by the following year, 'Use Somebody' had picked up the same award. It also won Record of the Year and Best Rock Song.
This was the point where many abandoned the band, believing their credibility to be compromised. The slight shift in opinion was suddenly exposed with the negative reaction to 2010's Come Around Sundown and 2013's Mechanical Bull, two records that had many of the earlier fans bolt for good. And yet it found them headlining festivals and kept on the Radio 1 daytime playlist loop.
In 2016 they then released Walls. Granted it wasn't on the same scale as their first two albums, but it was a surprisingly accomplished record full of radio-friendly bangers and delicate moments. Then, for over four years, that was it. Kings Of Leon went quiet.
How does the new album compare?
After my premature abandonment, I thought it was only fair to dive back in and give When You See Yourself a proper chance. Fearing I'd judged it too soon, I gave the Followill boys the benefit of the doubt and put the new album on again several days later. That proved to be a very wise choice indeed.
From feeling ambivalent on first listen, the record soon warmed on me. It initially reminded me a lot of their previous album Walls (2016), a record I had a lot of time for after giving up on the band in the wake of 2010's Come Around Sundown. The similarities would make sense though, with Markus Dravs returning again for producer duties.
What's clear from the off is that this is their most mature and melancholic album to date. It does lack the anthems and charisma of old. Instead, they try to make up for this with added heart and subtlety (the lack of which had put me off them a decade prior).
Opener 'When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away' is a solid enough start, the sense of quiet longing ("One more night, one more night, will you stay here") dominating throughout this mid-tempo track. It's may not exactly be what you had in mind for the start of a Kings Of Leon album when you consider the melodrama in previous albums ('Closer' on Only By The Night and 'Knocked Up' on Because of The Times), but it's got a touch of welcomed groove and romantic desire.
Lead single 'The Bandit' was immediately my favourite, possessing the most immediate hook on the record ("Rundown and stranded, must catch the bandit"). The second single '100,000 People' showcases the talent of the band without carrying any of the punch of previous singles. Plodding along at almost 6 minutes, you can't help but feel a bit impatient of its end. This is an emotion which also inflicted me during the appropriately named sixth track 'Golden Restless Age' and eighth track 'Supermarket'.
Ironically enough, the best moments on the record are when Kings Of Leon stray far from the faster rock sounds I had been moaning about them losing. The country-folk sounds of 'Claire & Eddie' is a delightful track about climate change. With synths, slide guitars and references to plunging "into the Colorado River", the band paint a very specific southern atmosphere that takes you to the roots of the band. It would, of course, be remiss of me not to mention the (I assume) unintentional Britney Spiers reference in the final line ("Oh baby, hit me one more time, time, time, time, time, time, time")!
The album definitely departs on a strong point. Dreamy and heartfelt closer 'Fairytale', allows for hopeless romanticism to shine through ("I'll love you 'til the day is gone" proclaims Caleb midway through). Its a blissful ending featuring atmospheric guitars and orchestrations, closing proceedings on an appreciative note.
Now settled down with wives and families, the album gently sums up the four Followill lads life progression. The life of Kings Of Leon began as rugged southern rockers in their teens and early-20s in 2003, before becoming polished, lustful popstars in 2008. They now appear widely removed from both, seemingly content to scale things back even further from their previous effort Walls (2016).
However, the album's unlikely to win over many of the fans who abandoned the band once they'd cleaned up their sound and visited the barbers in 2007, but it will certainly please those who have enjoyed their last two or three albums. Personally speaking, my initial reaction was slight disappointment and longing for the rock 'n' roll band of the past. Undoubtedly this will be exactly the same reaction many others will have, wondering where the punch has gone. Why is it so hard to let go?
Here I'll try to forget the past and judge it on its own merit. Played in the background, it was a pleasant enough listen for the most part, with great production, subtlety and a melancholic mood. Though, when focusing just on this record, there are points where the genericness of some of the tracks do get exposed and you're left looking at your watch. The 51 minute run time doesn't help in this regard. The vagueness and banality of many of Caleb's lyrics also result in less memorable moments than previous albums.
To answer my initial question, Kings Of Leon will divide opinion, but there's still plenty here that showcase the talents of the band. Just don't give this a listen if you're expecting a pick me up or you're wanting some Friday sounds. Yes there's some blandness and it can be really hard to escape that, but it really isn't as bad as I was anticipating after I gave it the effort.
To see the positives we just need to get over the fact that Kings of Leon of 2003-2008 are no longer with us. This is a record that won't evoke strong emotions either side, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt where others may not.
Best three tracks - The Bandit, Fairytale, Claire & Eddie
What did you think of it? Feel free to agree or berate me @BFloodlights.