KINGS OF LEON
Come Around Sundown
When the Followill brothers and their cousin Matthew first busted out of Tennessee in 2003 with the colorfully titled EP Holy Roller Novocaine, they were as green as a sapling—especially kid brother Jared, who’d been handed a bass only months previously by band mentor Angelo Petraglia and told to learn by playing along with Led Zeppelin CDs. But even then, it was obvious that these kids had something special.
Still, who knows whether Kings of Leon would have survived, let alone prospered, had they not been readily embraced in the UK, perhaps as much for their floppy coifs, skin-tight trousers and amusing accents as for their rough-and-tumble sound. That the four fledgling musicians turned out to such be improbably quick studies can now be seen as one of the most significant phenomena to pop up in recent rock history.
If the debut LP Youth & Young Manhood (2003) was viewed as disarmingly quirky by some reviewers (though dismissed by doubters as a premeditated case of image over substance), the follow-up Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005), revealed a scrappy young band already confident enough in their individual and collective abilities to take risks.
Indeed, the Kings of Leon sound is fundamentally built on audacity: Caleb’s preternatural yelp, at once wounded and defiant, was as far from rock indie-rock cool as one could get; oldest brother Nathan attacked his drum kit with the brutal aggressiveness of an extreme fighter; Jared’s basslines were so hyperactive you’d have thought he needed a Ritalin prescription; and Matthew squeezed as much tonal variety out of the effects pedals at his feet as Jonny Greenwood. Caleb’s songs weren’t like anything else out there either; what the hell did he mean by “He’s so the purity, a shaven and a mourning/and standing on a pigeon toe, in his disarray” in “King of the Rodeo,” or “18, balding, star, Golden, fallen, heart” in “The Bucket”?
In 2007, just after the band made another exponential leap with one of the last decade’s most invigorating albums in Because of the Times, English producer Ethan Johns, who’d helmed all their records to that point, went out on a limb. “This is gonna sound a little absurd,” he told me, “but I do think that they’re the best rock & roll band playing at the moment. I don’t think there’s anyone out there that holds a torch to these guys. They’re gonna be around for a long time, those boys. There’s no doubt.”
And on the eve of the release of their worldwide breakthrough Only by the Night in 2008, Caleb didn’t hesitate in answering my question about what current band impressed him the most: “Definitely Radiohead,” he said. “They get it right every time. That’s something we’ve always tried to do—mix things up a little bit.”
Two years (and nearly 7 million albums) later, those words speak volumes, because, with Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon have made a musical statement whose boldness rivals that of the envelope-pushing Kings of Art Rock—though it also manages to come off as companionably down-to-earth. Despite its success, Only by the Night was the work of a band still growing into their hard-earned status as arena headliners—while also adapting to a radically different studio dynamic resulting from their decision not to continue working with the strong-willed Johns. The new album, by contrast, finds these chronically restless and supremely self-assured musicians applying their rarefied skills to a super-tasty recipe in which familiar sounds and motifs—their own and those of their ever-expanding source material—are treated in unexpected and frequently unprecedented ways.
Come Around Sundown brings the soulful swagger of 2007’s Because of the Times and the arena-rock scale of Only by the Night to bear on classic rock styles in a dramatic display of how much these eager youngsters have absorbed from their continuing studies in rock history, and how boldly they’ve integrated classic moves into their own singular style. Now, finally, we can hear KOL’s link to the great Southern bands that came before them.
Nathan and Jared share a rhythmic pulse that emanates from their DNA, and they form an absolute monster rhythm section. The grooves they churn out are so sturdy and springy that Caleb and Matthew are free to launch into whatever melodic and textural acrobatics they can imagine.
Pushed to the max by engineer/co-producer Jacquire King, the earth-shaking bottom and the fireworks on top come together to form such immense soundscapes that my computer speakers could hardly handle them (and make no mistake, reviews of high-profile releases these days are often written in response to streams of middling bit rates played through desktop speakers).
The album unfolds like a parade of anthems out of some parallel universe. It starts, interestingly, where Because of the Night left off, with “The End,” a majestic piece featuring orchestral flourishes from Matthew’s overbubbed, reverb-drenched guitars, echoing the panoramic third-album closer “Arizona.” Following this widescreen scene-setter, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they’d just discovered the motherlode, which indeed they have.
“Radioactive,” the first single, is transitional by design. It’s a thrusting horizontal rocker, a la “Sex on Fire,” on which drums, bass and guitar engage in a breathless sprint from end to end, but in the final choruses, gospel voices rise up behind Caleb’s lead vocal, signaling what’s to come. On “Pyro,” Caleb elbows his way through the hammering dual-guitar riffage to bray out a righteously old-school Stax-style vocal under clouds of dirty-faced choirboy harmonies, in an inversion of the Exile female-gospel template.
Nathan and Caleb plausibly claim their Pentecostal upbringing prevented them from hearing much popular music until Petraglia took them under his wing, and as a result, they dive into their takes on the sounds of old records as if they were brand new. This child-like sense of novelty permeates “Mary,” an astounding melange of doo-wop, Sun-era rock & roll and early Beatles that may be the album’s most bizarro and thrilling piece of work.
Their mutated interpretation of the early days continues with “The Face,” with its echo-chamber melodrama—it’s like a Roy Orbison ballad on steroids. The band keeps the pedal to the metal with “The Immortals,” a massive slab of steaming rock with a funky groove in the transitions leading into a stately cadence under the mushroom-cloud choruses, Caleb quaking with hellfire like some demented, Elmer Gantry-style evangelist.
By the time it hits its midpoint, the album has become almost unbearably intense, which no doubt explains the placement right here of the Allmans-meet-The Band stomper “Back Down South,” on which Caleb breaks out his most corn-pone drawl while Matthew plays a fiddle jig on a slide guitar, in tandem with an actual fiddle.
The relative calm extends into the following “Beach Side,” a summery but propulsive track in which Matthew’s left hand keeps threatening to slide into dissonance, a la Beach House’s “Norway,” on the way to a “My Sweet Lord”-like payoff. The fusillade resumes with the raging “No Money,” which reintroduces the rebel protagonist of Because of the Night’s epic “Knocked Up,” before easing into a relatively mellowed-out final third.
The cowbell-accented “Pony Up,” another twist on early rock & roll, with a sparkling guitar riff right out of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” boogaloos into “Birthday,” with its souped-up, reggae-fied bass groove, sparkling guitar arpeggios and vivid imagery, Caleb sounding like a snockered stranger perched on the next barstool sharing a story over beers and chasers. True to its title, “Mi Amigo” cruises south of the border on a swaying tempo, fingerpicked guitar embroidery and faux-mariachi horns.
Come Around Sundown ends with the blue-collar rhapsody “Pickup Truck,” in which Caleb’s now-familiar desperate dude gets choked up trying to get the girl of his dreams to forgive him, or just give him the time of day, in a shimmering slice of down-home magical realism. Somewhere, Gram Parsons is smiling.
This time out, KoL want you to have an experience, and that’s what you get, on a record that’s over the top, wildly inventive and satisfying in the ever-deepening way of landmark longplayers from the last century, as they honor their elders while remaining utterly true to themselves. Come Around Sundown is that magical.
(This is the long-form version of a review that appears in the November issue of Uncut.)