After a band has reached a certain level of fame, there’s really no way back: if Let It Be had been an atrocious record (which, mercifully, it wasn’t), The Beatles would still have been one of the world’s biggest acts. It’s nearly impossible to undo fame, and a frustrating consequence of mega-stardom is musical indulgence. New albums have more unnecessary extras than the set of Ben Hur, and there are no musical depths which have not already been fully plumbed by those select few musicians whose early brilliance has given them carte blanche – or so they believe.
Led Zeppelin made a reggae album. Stevie Wonder recorded saccharine ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ amongst other ’80s misfires. Paul McCartney’s legion of musical sins post-Beatles are well-documented and nearly innumerable. The list goes on.
Kings of Leon, with 2008’s Only By The Night and more specifically lead single ‘Sex on Fire’, catapulted themselves into a new, brighter limelight; perhaps not on the same level as those mentioned above, but still a household name. Such is this newfound fame that many fans of their early albums have turned their back, accusing the group of “selling out”, “caving in” and other such preposition-ended sleights.
So when Come Around Sundown was released in October of this year, you’d expect the kind of fanfare associated with a royal wedding, singles galore and the album generally being shoved down your throat at every opportunity. Yet it was kept as quiet as can be; here is where the shrewdness begins. KoL have made a record quietly and put it out without huge celebration, which for a band of their popularity is incredibly difficult, and also got some new music out there relatively quickly after OBTN, perhaps trying to dispel the perception of themselves as mass-produced one-trick ponies. On the contrary, the Followill clan have done their musical homework, and the fact that Come Around Sundown plays like an earlier KoL record is a testament to the work they’ve put in.
Improvement through reversion may sound implausible, even impossible, but the appeal of Kings of Leon started with simplicity and fun – listen again to the joyous ‘Red Morning Light’ from Youth and Young Manhood if you don’t believe me – and with their latest album they’ve tried to recapture this same appeal without replicating it. And broadly speaking they’ve succeeded in doing so.
The first preconceived problem with CAS is certainly one of musical indulgence. There are a few hints that the band is straying a mite – the odd choral backing vocal drifts into tracks like ‘Back Down South’ and ‘Mary’ – but these touches are incorporated, not highlighted, thus avoiding the usual trainwreck of gospel choirs in rock albums. What we also realise, quite quickly, is that our second worrying preconception – that this would be nothing more than mainstream fluff which plays to its audience – is simply false. Apart from ‘Radioactive’ (to date still the only single release from the record), none of the songs on KoL’s latest record sound anything like the popular club fodder that was (and is) ‘Sex on Fire’.
‘Radioactive’, indeed, seems like a logical base point for Come Around Sundown. Opening track ‘The End’ (see what they did there) is a bit underwhelming, a slow builder which is clearly being used to set up “the big hit” of ‘Radioactive’, the second track. Yet despite being certifiably inoffensive rock, it’s pretty decent fare, with a song construction about as complicated as a Lego brick and a catchy chorus sure to get stuck in many heads.
After these two underwhelming numbers, Come Around Sundown seems like exactly what everyone thought it would be. However, it’s from here that the record takes off, and goes back to the Kings of Leon sound we all used to love. Caleb’s bizarre vocals are on far better form than they were on the partially incomprehensible OBTN, still imbued with that Southern twang but used as more of a melodic tool than it has been on the last two records. Through a mix of solo hooks and layered vocal choruses, we get to enjoy his voice, where in previous albums we were subjected to it, and the music is all the better for this. The lyrics aren’t going to blow your mind, largely talking about the girls-drinking-friends triumvirate that has dominated all KoL albums to date, but this album smacks of a band enjoying themselves again after what’s been a brutal touring schedule the last few years.
Songs like ‘Pickup Truck’ and ‘The Immortals’ go back to the root of KoL’s sound, namely chugging bass riffs, snappy drum parts and guitars which alternate between sparse and sharp, and it’s not a coincidence that they’re two of the best tracks on the album too. At its best, Come Around Sundown sounds like the A-Ha Shake Heartbreak incarnation of the band, and whilst it never reaches the superb heights of that album, it certainly makes Kings of Leon sound better, more fun and altogether more recognisable than the electronic mush that dominated some of Only By The Night.
It’s not an album which merits the highest praise, the slow start and a couple of tracks which feel like filler see to that, and it doesn’t compare favourably to either of the band’s first two albums, which are both still stone-cold classics in my book and will be very tough to match with any future records.
It could be said that Come Around Sundown is a a step back for the band, but in a good way; they’ve gone back to the Southern charm of their earlier records and have evaded the trap of becoming a populist group instead of an original outfit. Kings of Leon’s fifth album is much more like the band which rose to stardom, rather than that which had stardom thrust upon it. It’s unlikely to convert anyone, but plays like the album the Followills wanted to (and should have) made after Because of the Times instead of the one they ended up producing. A natural successor to the third record, and, for fans waiting for the real Kings of Leon to stand back up, it’s a step back in the right direction.
Best tracks: ‘Back Down South’, ‘Pickup Truck’, ‘The Immortals’, ‘Pyro’.
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