They released their new album, Come Around Sundown, today, and it comes on the heels of 2008’s minivan mom-approved smash Only by the Night.
Long-time fans/casual listeners of the band know that their heyday is long since gone, at least creatively. That’s not surprising for most bands who hit it big after a long time in the “underground”, but when you do it the way Kings of Leon have, it warrants critique. This last July, as one of the biggest bands in the world, they walked off stage after three songs in St. Louis because some birds were not-so-metaphorically raining down a shitstorm on the band. What’s more, Caleb Followill, the band’s front man, even says he “fucking hates hipsters”, which I guess makes him a super-cool hipster, for ironically hating those who ironically hate?
Anyway, he goes on to say that “We’ll gladly be the next generation of bands that aren’t going anywhere.” Statements like that make it obvious that they don’t care anymore about being real “artists”, and instead prefer to be a “product” that is mass-marketed and crowd-pleasing. As a result, Come Around Sundown is more of the watered-down rock-lite that made them as popular as they are today.
This new album exists to capitalize on the smash success of Only by the Night, the 2008 album that flooded FM radio stations and the general consciousness with mid-tempo annoyances like Sex on Fire and Use Somebody. Those songs elevated the band from mid-level, long-suffering indie stalwarts to stadium-hopping globetrotters, which probably felt good to the Followill guys, who had endured nearly ten years of mainstream anonymity despite churning out some pretty impressive records (namely Aha Shake Heartbreak and Youth & Young Manhood).
Alas, those days are long gone, and Come Around Sundown is filled with rehashes of the formula that made Only by the Night such a hit. I can’t say I blame the band for doing the same thing again, but they really don’t have anything new to contribute to their catalog. I read that Caleb improvised much of the lyrics on this new album in the studio while recording the songs, as if the lyrics themselves are afterthoughts. They might as well have improvised the music, too, since it’s all the same type of stuff they’ve done their entire (recent) career, only with the “Bland” knob turned up to eleven.
The End is inoffensive, but unremarkable, a pretty good preview for the rest of the songs. It does have some nice buzzy guitar work from Matthew Followill, and Caleb’s voice is in the same pitch and range that it always is.
Lead single Radioactive combines stadium-ready U2-style guitars and gospel-ish vocals, and for some reason reminds me of Dave Matthews Band, even though it doesn’t really sound like a DMB song. Maybe it’s that talk of something being “in the water”, I’m not sure. It’s more engaging than Sex on Fire or Use Somebody, but still falls in the “meh” category.
Pyro, with its Coldplay-like guitars and quiet melody is aesthetically pleasing, if not for Caleb’s whiny wailing in the chorus, in which he repeats I won’t ever be your cornerstone over and over. The song has a nice, simple melody that makes it somewhat pleasant to listen to, but his nonsensical lyrics and the vocal bellowing make it hard to consider it a highlight.
Mary, the next track, is almost insufferable, with more wailing, high-pitched vocals and a pseudo-Southern blues-style feel to it. After the mundane chorus repeats over and over, Caleb elevates his voice EVEN MORE to an almost duck-like quacking sound. No thank you. The song does have a slick guitar solo halfway through, but that quickly dissipates and the quacking takes over once again. Barf.
It’s hard to call out many of these songs as highlights, as this was one of those albums that you start playing and before you know it you’re on track eight. The songs just flow together in a big bland puddle of chirps and echo-y guitar chords, with some half-assed lyrics thrown on top for the hell of it.
The Immortals sounds very British (think Arctic Monkeys or someone like that) with its bouncy bass riff and The Clash-like guitar effects, but that good feeling goes away with the Use Somebody-ish chorus, which makes it yet another Stadium Anthem Kings of Leon Song. Sigh.
This isn't to say, though, that the album is completely terrible. Back Down South, using what sounds like slide guitar and a folky rhythm, sounds like KOL’s attempt to appeal to the indie kids, the sort of kids who listen to Blitzen Trapper and Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. In the end, the violins and elaborate instruments that are at work on this song give it a woodsy country feeling, and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable moments on the album. A song like this makes Caleb’s “I hate hipsters” declaration seem a bit contradictory.
The rest of the album is more of the same, unremarkable crowd-pleasers that the band is now content to churn out. The tunes do tend to have pretty juicy bass lines, courtesy of Jared Followill, though.
When Kings of Leon premiered Use Somebody on Saturday Night Live in 2008, my friend and I thought “wow, sounds like they’re trying to imitate U2, yuck” and sure enough, that song (and its album) propelled the band to the kind of level it had sought for years. As a result, Come Around Sundown is a very safe album for the band to release, with half-assed songs that cop a toned-down version of the types of songs they used to create pre-superstardom. They’re not at a point where they need to top themselves, as they’ve already peaked commercially. As a result, this album is a canned version of their prior efforts, with the creativity and edge removed, replaced by repetition and inoffensive FM radio filler.
It’s no secret that Kings of Leon used to be a pretty good rock band. With commercial success comes the inevitable decline of quality, and they are a prime example. What once was a quirky and likeable indie rock band is now a stadium-ready power ballad-producing band of unmotivated rich men.
In closing, I fully expect this album to be played in the background at countless wine and cheese parties in lavish upscale apartments in midtown Manhattan by socialites who bought the album at Borders.