Kings of Leon “Come Around Sundown” Review
Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: Album Reviews, Music, Nashville.
Since its release in September of 2008, Kings of Leon‘s Only by the Night has sold some 6.2 million copies worldwide, becoming the highest selling digital album in history in the process, has earned the band four Grammy Awards in addition to a slew of other prizes around the world, and has never really left the Billboard 200. The breakout record skyrocketed the group to “stadium” status which evolved into the role of headliner at such festivals as Bonnaroo and the prestigious Glastonbury and Reading festivals in the UK. But the success came with a price: fans and critics alike balked at the band’s shift in direction, its uncharacteristically pristine sound, and the gaudiness of such songs as the massive “Sex on Fire.” Perhaps the most glaring issue that arose from the band’s success was within the group itself, however; most notably lead vocalist Caleb Followill who has gone off on fans (calling newer supporters “Not fucking cool”), the band (“We know you’re sick of Kings of Leon. We’re fucking sick of Kings of Leon too”), and the music (calling “Sex on Fire” a “Piece of shit”). As David Smyth of the London Evening Standard explained recently, leading up to the release of Come Around Sundown the band of brothers is in a rare state of limbo, “Kings of Leon are at a point where they need to decide whether this breath-restricting altitude is where they really want to be.” And to call the struggle “apparent” within the album would be a gross understatement.
One of the main points of curiosity concerning Only by the Night was its distinctly polished sound compared to the band’s past work, something which the band attempts to confront with Come Around Sundown. The album is nothing if not cohesive-sounding—glistening with much the same production value as Only by the Night—but the band has made an obvious attempt to add a sense of familiarity which was lacking from the multi-platinum success. “The End” is a looping, distorted ballad, “Pony Up” features a bouncy bass line that signals back to some of the band’s earlier records, and “Mi Amigo” comes closer to a classic rock vibe than anything else the band has done in recent memory. Even Sundown‘s lead single, “Radioactive,” features an invigorating guitar line that coils itself around the track’s infectious hook. But despite its reinvigorated sound, Come Around Sundown is still ripe with that air of uncertainty which Smyth previously alluded to.
The hook to “The Immortals,” for instance, bleeds stadium-sized swagger, with Caleb bellowing “Out on the streets and stars, and ride away/Find out what you are, face to face.” Despite appearing distraught over tracks like “Sex on Fire,” “Pickup Truck” suggests that there’s no immediate lack of egocentric lyrics passing through the band’s songwriting sessions, “Walk you home to see where you’re living around, and I know this place/Pour yourself on me and you know I’m the one that you won’t forget.” The most glaring source of frustration comes with “No Money” however, Caleb lyrically battling between what he has and what he wants, looking at his success and still feeling emotionally bankrupt, “I got no money but I want you so/I got so much I cannot handle.” Unlike the band’s previous efforts which centered around Nashville as a base, Sundown was recorded in New York City, which only seemed to add to the stress of the situation. Caleb recently explained, “It was kind of a depressing experience. If we’d made it is Nashville, we’d be out playing basketball or goofing off. Here, I’d wake up and hail a cab to the studio, then spend 12 hours a day in a room with no windows.” He added, “It felt like we were going to the office.” And as “No Money” winds down this ambivalence is only amplified, “And all this pissin’ around, cut me loose of this fucking town: I ain’t comin’ back.”
And that seems to be one of the main issues the group has had over the past two years: a sense of being lost. While financially secure for generations to come, they were essentially thrust into superstardom, and as Caleb’s aforementioned comments reveal, there’s an internal conflict that comes with that. “The End” bluntly uncovers this feeling, “I ain’t got a home, I feel all alone,” while “Pyro” wallows in a feeling sadness, “All the black inside me is slowly seeping from the bone/Everything I cherish is slowly dying or it’s gone,” and “The Face” outright calls for a return home, “If you give up New York I’ll give you Tennessee/The only place to be.” The obviously-titled “Back Down South” takes this feeling one step further in shifting not only the lyrical focus, but the musical focus toward the style that the band was so longing for; a slide, fiddle and acoustic guitars accompany a chorus of hollers and laughter as the song closes out, “I’m going back down south now.”
At this point in time, it would be easy to be one of the many who are sick of Kings of Leon. For two years the band has seemingly been exposed on near-Lagy Gaga proportions, and you’d be insane to think that you’ve heard a song like “Use Somebody” for the last time. But it doesn’t make much sense to be overly critical of a band for using the tools which were made available to them, nor does it make sense to mock success simply for the sake of doing so. All of that is in the past now, and Come Around Sundown reveals itself to be the first step in a shift toward what made the Followill brothers so alluring in the first place. Sure, there are songs like the oddly placed malt-shop rock of “Mary,” but there are also songs like the vaguely twangy “Birthday,” which is far sexier—lyrically—than anything having to do with someone’s sex being on fire, “We’re gonna come together, we’re gonna celebrate/We’re gonna gather around like it’s your birthday/I don’t want to know just what I’m gonna do/I don’t care where you’re goin’, I’m coming home with you.” If you keep an open mind you’re likely to find a solid mainstream rock album that sounds much more like a product of band that enjoys “goofing off” more than it does “going to the office.” Time will tell which of the two directions the group takes—whether they chase success or continue the search for soul—but if Come Around Sundown is any indication, the future of Kings of Leon will be just as enjoyable as the band’s past has been.