Kings of Leon
Come Around Sundown
By David M. Goldstein | 8 November 2010
Whether you view Kings of Leon as the American heirs to U2’s throne or (more likely) insufferably dull hacks with outmoded views about women and a lucky hit, what’s undeniable is that Jared Followill is the greatest, or at least the loudest-mixed, mainstream rock four-stringer not named Flea. While his band mates gamely struggle to reconcile their recent super-stardom with their need to keep it Southern (y’all), all Jared does is constantly churn out these awesome guttural bass lines suggesting Peter Hook moonlighting as a Muscle Shoals session man. His band’s new record isn’t terrible and manages to capture some of the off-kilter eccentricities that made past efforts like Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004) unironic CMG favorites before the Kings dropped the colossally uninteresting Only By the Night (2008). Regardless, the Kings of Leon don’t really need a bass player this dexterous. Jared Followill deserves a better band.
As you may recall, I came down pretty hard on Only By the Night; in particular, I derided breakthrough smash “Use Somebody” as a “blatant stab at a big radio rock ballad [with] watered down Kevin Shields riffs hinting that the Kings don’t really know the proper path to radio salvation.” I still stand by my assertion that the song sucks, but one Grammy and a platinum record later, I’ll admit I was wrong about that last bit. Touché, Kings of Leon, touché. Judging from the cheap seats-aiming power ballads and big $$$ atmospherics that comprise most of Come Around Sundown‘s first half, they’re clearly hungry for a tune to replicate that success, whether or not what they’re using as ammo is any good.
And yet, what’s somewhat admirable about this band is what really weird arena rockers they’ve turned out to be. For starters, Caleb Followill was able to get away with his mush-mouthed bark when his band was oddly posited as the Southern answer to Wire (back in the Aha Shake-era), but now that he’s brutally high in the mix and forced to enunciate, he’s completely exposed and totally grating, the sonic antithesis of a pretty boy frontman (which is maybe the idea?). Then there’s guitarist Matthew Followill, who seldom plays riffs anymore so much as furiously trills with heavy doses of reverb, like he’s rehearsing songs from the new Interpol record should Daniel Kessler make like Carlos D. and jump ship. And of course Jared Followill does whatever the fuck he wants. So Kings of Leon have evolved over the course of five records from classic-rock caricatures, to Southern post-punkers, to an oddly British-inflected stadium rock band with an amazing bass player and a singer who sounds like a dying cat. They’re poised to sell a ton of records this way, which seems strangely heroic.
That the slow tunes are now far more effective than the up-tempo stuff is telling. Lead single “Radioactive” (sadly, not a cover of the Firm song) is a painfully lazy pop ditty using a gospel choir for no apparent reason. But ensuing track “Pyro,” a gently rolling ballad in 6/8 that will force lighters aloft when Caleb mewls that he’s not about to become some woman’s “coin-er stone,” hits VH1 paydirt. Even better is “The Face” where Caleb’s command that he “riiiiide out the wave” over climactic guitars could pass for latter day Eddie Vedder if you’ve had enough to drink. And every now and then the band will completely surprise, like on “Mary,” a Spector-esque doo-wop song that hipsters would likely gravitate to were it not from the likes of Kings of Leon, and on “Beachside,” a lithe, pretty number that with a little more fuzz and a breathier vocal could pass for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
Come Around Sundown‘s full-on embrace of mainstream balladry works unquestionably better than the in-between half measures of Only By the Night, and the band should be commended for its prolificacy (five albums in seven years) and ability to build a fanbase through frequent touring. But the fact remains that Sundown is still considerably boring when compared to the likes of the Kings’ first three albums. It’s also too long, the back end sacked with faceless mid-tempo songs devoid of hooks that can’t compare to the mini-epics up front. This band is far stranger than most people give them credit for, and as goes mainstream pap, if I’m stuck in a rental car with three radio stations and no iPod deck, I’ll still take Caleb Followill’s fart-y vocals over that of Will.I.Am any day of the week.