Anybody that has been closely following Kings of Leon since they first emerged in 2003 with the album “Youth & Young Manhood” knows how the band has progressed in the last 7 years. They’ve gone from largely bearded and plaid-clad deep-fried Southern rock to cleaned up anthemic rock stars with enough mojo to headline a major music festival. Recent reports have the band members showing up to a festival show in separate, tinted SUVs while coming close to blows with other artists after being taunted for it. To call them big shots these days somehow doesn’t feel too out of line. They’ve gone from humble Southern gentlemen to capital letter Rock Stars thanks to finally permeating mainstream culture with their last album “Only By the Night”. The hits “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” topped the charts and they’re still riding high on it. Yet for all those indie kids that supported them when “Molly’s Chamber” came around and impressed, Kings of Leon have lost their way. The small glimmer of hope left is the thought that maybe the band will return to their roots and go “old school” now that they have a much larger audience hooked on the line.
If you’ve heard Kings of Leon’s new single “Radioactive”, then you should already know it’s made from the same U2-style ingredients they’ve been working with recently. That was reason enough for long-time fans of the band to worry even before the full length “Come Around Sundown” came out this week. The scenario plays out almost exactly how you’d expect it to. Now that they are selling out giant venues and are making enough cash to sustain a much more comfortable lifestyle, there’s little to no intention of returning to those fledgling days of a struggling American rock band that was only a success in Europe. The new songs need to accurately reflect how their newest legion of fans have come to perceive them, so backing off big melodies and ultra-slick production would be detrimental to their popularity. Choruses are repeated at least three times per song, but often many more than that. They use relatively simple words and phrasing for easier memorization and sing-alongs. Matthew Followill’s guitar work is like listening to a widescreen landscape, with the reverb-touched sound just spreading out clear into the open area ahead. Caleb Followill’s vocals often soar into the upper registers, and he prefers to stretch words out like taffy now rather than cram a bunch into a small space like he used to. So the elements are all there for what feels like the setup for a sequel to “Only By the Night” under a different name.
The small surprise on “Come Around Sundown” is that there seems to be some half-hearted attempts to break away from the mold that churned out a couple of massive radio hits. They’re not leaning backwards exactly for this, but they’re continuing to try new things to broaden their stadium appeal. The first couple tracks on the album are nothing we haven’t heard from Kings of Leon before, no doubt designed to create an instant comfort zone by establishing a clear bridge with the last album. “Mary” is the first indication that something is just a little different, as there’s an almost 50’s-inspired shuffle with a modern twist happening. It’d be considered ahead of its time at an old fashioned sock hop, and just a little backwards-leaning today. Boys throw on your bow ties and girls throw on your poodle skirts and put your heads on each others’ shoulders for this slow dance. As an ode to their early days and perhaps a nod to those fans, “Back Down South” incorporates plenty of down-home slow Southern charm matched with some violin and a touch of banjo. It’s kind of like a sonic cousin to “Aha Shake Heartbreak”‘s “The Bucket”, only slower and safer aka pretty ineffective. Bass guitar dominates all over “Beach Side”, and the carefully picked electric guitar work brings out the hazy surf-and-sand vibe the title suggests. It’s one of the few songs that actually plays off a mood and feeling rather than aiming for the easy-exit chorus. And apparently “Mi Amigo” earns that Spanish title only because there’s a small splash of horns in an otherwise plain melody. It’s like cutting up a bunch of tomatoes, putting them in a bowl and calling it salsa. You need peppers and spices to give it a more legitimate edge, which is what this track doesn’t have.
Outside of the couple songs that sonically break from huge melodies and at least gracefully attempt to explore new directions, there’s a fair portion of “Come Around Sundown” that revels in lethargy and uninspired balladry. After the first few tracks, not a whole lot gets Kings of Leon energized, and it makes the second half of the record just a little bit of a sleeping pill. It’d be a positive thing, reducing the size and scope of so many tracks, but that strategy only works when the alternative has something significantly fascinating to hold your interest. Most of the slower songs are as cookie cutter as the energized anthems, the difference being those bigger and quicker ones give the listener at least the push to dance or sing along. If first single “Radioactive” doesn’t turn into a massive hit the way “Sex On Fire” did, there’s little to nothing else on this record that works any better. No matter how much they want to keep their popularity streak alive, even more recent fans of the band might walk away disappointed by the proverbial hangdog shoulder shrugging mood that permeates much of the album. Whatever the reason for how this final product turned out to be so uninspired, “Come Around Sundown” tries to be everything to everyone but yields little to nothing instead. “Easily forgettable” is the two word phrase that best describes the record, and if the mainstream music lovers out there feel the same way, it could be the words to describe Kings of Leon in a year as well. If utter failure is what it takes to reinvigorate this band to the high levels we all know they can perform at, then bring it on.