The myth, posited on the regular by lapsed fans and a rockist music press, is that Kings of Leon were once a great band. A familiar argument focuses on the supposed genius of 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood and quick sequel Aha Shake Heartbreak. Whatever your feelings on this stance and those records, the myth gains strength when you stack ‘em up next to what followed.
Many look to ‘Sex on Fire’ as the point of no return for the Followill clan, but the ‘when’ isn’t all that interesting. Some musicians simply run out of road. You could argue that everyone does, eventually. A few have the good grace to walk away while still a potent force, leaving a strong legacy behind – see The Dillinger Escape Plan right now, for instance – while others just keep going, churning out ‘this will do’ material that validates a fresh tour and new t-shirts – see… well, an awfully large amount but let’s go with Green Day as another current example.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter practice. Despite what a select few may argue, those who choose to create art don’t really owe us anything. Sure, you want for quality control when parting with your cash but it’s even easier to not buy a ticket or listen to something else on whatever streaming service you’re loyal to that month. Still, you would like them to at least give a shit. Whether he really knew what he was saying or not, Nathan Followill’s words from a recent Hot Press cover story spoke cynical volumes:
'Going into this record, I think we made it a point to not put any pressure [on ourselves]. I really don’t feel any pressure. It’s our last record on our record deal for one, so I think not so much pressure, I think the unknown – what’s going to happen beyond, and ‘can we make a good seventh album?’ – is kind of the only pressure we put ourselves under. We’ve kind of established ourselves everywhere on every other aspect, so, yeah, I think our fans will be happy.'
Fair enough? At least the dude has the stones to admit that Kings of Leon have fully embraced the laurels-resting stage of their career but there’s a depressing reality to such a mindset. Contractual obligation and the need to generate money via a world tour takes precedence over art and craft for commercial juggernauts such as this one. Now more brand than band, they play it safe and keep their masters satisfied. I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know and neither are Kings of Leon on a seventh full-length effort that you’ve heard several times over the past decade.
WALLS at least comes forth with some degree of weirdness, brandishing an unusual acronym – We Are All Like Love Songs – and artwork that rivals Biffy Clyro’s Ellipsis in the ‘worst of the year’ stakes. Alas, that’s about as out-there as it gets on a record that stays the stadium course as if lives were dependent on it. There’s been some bluster about Markus Dravs imposing a ruthless atmosphere in the studio but his credentials seem to make more of an impact here. The producer has worked with the likes of Mumford & Sons, Coldplay and Arcade Fire so he knows how to make things sound big, clean and radio-friendly. So it is that the WALLS he puts up are solid, functional, unlikely to offend.
This is where that ‘first two albums’ lark makes sense. There was admittedly something otherworldly about Caleb Followill’s emergent bitter drawl, like he stumbled out of a desert after weeks of wandering and this was his way of communicating, so fucking deal with it or don’t. They might sound like Creedence Clearwater Revival B-sides but there’s brashness to ‘Red Morning Light’, a ramshackle charge found in ‘The Bucket’ and a proud belligerence spat about the place on ‘Four Kicks‘. All of that, however, is gone and it’s never coming back.
For Kings of Leon, old isn’t the grave, rather a velvet-lined cradle. You really can’t get het up one way or another about a song like ‘Waste a Moment’, which might as well be called ‘Lead Single’, nor can you muster up anything other than a yawn as ‘Conversation Piece’ stretches out like a cat in front of a fire on a cold winter night. There’s the occasional moment of oddity like when ‘Muchacho’ opens up with what sounds like a sample from The Dust Brothers’ soundtrack to Fight Club but it’s saddled onto a generic country stroll.
They can still hit choruses that thousands will slur back their way; ‘Reverend’ and ‘Find Me’ attest to this, and there’s a definite sense of command on ‘Over’ and a searching title song but it’s just so tired at this point. Kings of Leon are what they are, their walls stand tall enough despite glaring structural defects and the fans will likely indeed be 'happy'. For now.
4Dave Hanratty's Score