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. You know the narrative by now: sheltered Southern kids raised on religion, finding rock ‘n’ roll and sin, then sobering up and settling down. It’s a classic narrative, one that’s almost too perfect in its adherence to tropes. There were all the cringe-worthy lyrics about dangerous women and the bandmembers’ own profligacy. There were also, at one point, songs that were invigorated and scuzzy and endearing enough to swat away concerns about a doofy band playing into all manner of classic bad-boy rock archetypes—the types of rock songs few others have been swinging for in the 21st century.
Those are the things about Kings of Leon that come across as real enough. But as they sold their souls over again—this time not for boozy Southern rock, but for schlocky corporate-music refrains—all sorts of questions popped up. What even is this band? “Southern Strokes turned Southern U2” is the oft-cited transition, but over time both comparisons began to feel overly generous. Instead, the Followill crew’s arena-conquering material lumped them closer to mewling radio-rock bands than the indie sphere with which they’d flirted. When it was just “Use Somebody” and Come Around Sundown, it was still easy to hope that Kings of Leon would reclaim some of the roughened charm of their earlier work. “Supersoaker,” the lead single from their 2013 album Mechanical Bull, had even hinted at a return-to-form; it had the earworm ease of the best Aha Shake Heartbreak cuts, but conveyed it with a little more clarity and control. And while the songwriting across that record proved unsteady, it was at least a turn in the right direction. It offered an image of Kings of Leon as grizzled almost-veterans, no longer forcing choruses to soar when they could be more evocative as they rumbled.
Well, then they made WALLS. It’s their seventh full-length, and it too marks a return-to-form, but this time the form they’re revisiting is the soulless would-be transcendence of all the worst stuff on Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown. This is, uh, not the form they should return to. WALLS mostly finds Kings of Leon back in that mode of offering up fast-food “whoa-oh” singalongs and guitars that chime as distinctly as wallpaper.
If you’re amenable to that version of Kings of Leon, you’re in luck. “Reverend” and “Waste a Moment” join a growing lineage of songs the group has offered up in the last eight or so years, a lineage in which the names and melodies are becoming increasingly hard to distinguish from one another. Sure, these songs get stuck in your head, but they’re not exactly welcome there. The catchiness of these songs is like a party guest who is trying too hard; the choruses and big, glistening guitars have an irritating tenacity. Name almost any song on WALLS: “Around the World,” “Over,” “Eyes on You,” “Wild”—any of them could slot in as third-tier answers to “Sex on Fire” and “Radioactive” and “Use Somebody.”
There are glimmers of something else, hints of why this band has been likable to many over the years, hints of other places they could’ve gone. The jangling guitars and light moodiness of “Find Me” conjure a style of twilit early ’80s highway-rock that could suit Kings of Leon well as thirtysomething journeymen. And “Muchacho” is an evocative barroom lament, the kind of thing that has you picturing aged faux-outlaws refusing to cry into their whiskey in some distant desert saloon. There’s more grit and gravity in frontman Caleb Followill’s delivery here than anywhere else on the album; it makes you wonder if there was more where this came from. It makes you wish for a latter-day Kings of Leon album that was more rugged. One where you can feel the miles they’ve traveled, rather than the ticket sales of the festivals they’ve headlined and no doubt hope to headline once more. Sadly, they seem content for the kind of mediocrity that designates you as the headliner Firefly and Bonnaroo call when someone else isn’t available.
Ryan Leas – Pitchfork