Kings Of Leon recently added to speculation about their next album (after what appeared a torturous gestation period for Come Around Sundown) by telling NME, in typically antithetical fashion, that their new record would arrive: “Sooner rather than later”. So to celebrate the former Reading headliners return we make them the focus of this week’s rank the albums.
5. Come Around Sundown (2010)
After the conquering the charts and finally earning respect in their homeland with 2009’s Only By The Night, the Kings found themselves in a somewhat awkward position. Where to go from here? The messages were mixed, Caleb decried passives crowds and soft sounds – he spoke of alienating his new audience with avant garde sounds, while his band mates struggled to embrace life in New York City. The result was rather surprising, an album that softened the edge of Only By The Night even further, dealing in big textures and laboured emotion rather than pop choruses and ragged indie. The results were decidedly hit and miss, “The End” and “Pyro” suggested that the band were a worthy rival to U2, but lead single “Radioactive” was anonymous and bland.
Ultimately the album was stuck between stadium tedium (“Pickup Truck”) and characterless roots explorations (“Back Down South”). They took risks occasionally, “Mary” triumphs because it’s so gaudy, one of the few moments where the band go out on a limb on a record that is decidedly safe. The band followed the biggest release of their career by moving even further away from their initial sound, without fully embracing a new cohesive direction of travel.
Narrowly missing out on third place is the album that launched the Kings Of Leon into the stratosphere. In truth they were already set, Because Of The Times had led the band to headline Glastonbury and sub-headline Reading, but this record made the band bona fide pop stars. Caleb’s voice had always been a weapon but, with the guitar’s reduce to blaring jabbing counterpoints, he was free to shine. “Closer” was a haunting siren call while “Crawl” wass pure gravel and grime – it was clear from the off, something very special was happening. The early frenetic energy was gone, they were no longer ramshackle, the Kings were pleading and unashamedly widescreen. Their playing was controlled and Caleb was wild. Only By The Night was beautifully produced, it sounds huge, and the textures are genuinely interesting even when the songwriting isn’t. So much of what worked on this LP was forgotten on Come Around Sundown, which is a shame.
3. Youth And Young Manhood (2003)
Thrillingly thin, Youth And Young Manhood barely hangs together. Shaky off centre rhythms just about keep Caleb’s schizophrenic outburst and the clanging Southern guitars in check. Dubbed The Southern Strokes the Kings certainly kept things tight and to the point, but they never felt as restrained as their New York Rivals. The roots influences hang together nicely, “Joe’s Head” recalls Dylan without pastiche while “Spiral Staircase” sounds as raw and unhinged as anything Jack White was producing at the time. The songwriting style and arrangements are limited and ultimately repetitive, but Youth And Young Manhood was an undoubted success. A clever mix of wild energy, understated posturing, hit singles, and, in “California Waiting”, a suggestion that this band might have some well hidden pop instincts.
This was a really tough call. Because Of The Times is the moment the Kings past and present found themselves in perfect balance. It did stadium sized anthems in a soulful, Southern, and wholly authentic fashion. “Knocked Up” remains incredibly bold, back in 2006 (when they first started playing it) Caleb looked terrified. It remains a tough song to sing, but over time he found crowds of thousands cooing back to him, even as he visibly shook on stage. It set the tone for what was to come, it wasn’t commercial or a hit, but it had hints of “Notion” and “Revelry”.
Elsewhere the band just seemed to be having a whale of a time.“Charmer” still feels like a Pixies tribute mixed with some QOTSA beef, and it remains one of the best songs in their live arsenal. The band suddenly tightened up, taking all the lovable imperfections out of their sound, but unlike their future efforts, they lost none of their edge. “My Party” was an absolute beast, a genuinely hard anthem – another potential direction of travel discarded with Only By The Night’s arrival. Still, it’s practically a ballad next to the savagery of “Black Thumbnail’s” final beatdown – a tracks so thrilling that no pop hit is big enough to pinch its set closing duties. Because Of The Times was far from the perfect record, but it proved to be an immaculate moment of transition for the Kings.
1. Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004)
Aha Shake Heartbreak was perhaps the last moment when the Kings felt truly wild, and arguably unpleasant. Because Of The Times would have its moments, but this was the sound of a band with clear pop potential being guided not by slick melodies, but by deep inner anxiety. The sound is bigger and more filled out, but it never feels polished. Full of brilliant cuts, “Slow Night, So Long” feels like it’s in a rush, and it’s all the better for it. Caleb is stumbling over himself to get these barbed emotions out. The Kings wrote field-filling anthems without actually sounding contrived. “Taper Jean Girl” is perhaps the weirdest anthem you’ll ever here 20,000 people bellow. Honestly, the riffage might be big, but the vocals are either knotted and guttural or meek and spiteful.
The oddness at the heart of the Kings was essential to the harrowing power of Aha’s centerpiece ballads. Seeing this awkward hairy man (he wasn’t a pin up back then) howling and pleading alone on “Milk” was thrilling. The composition was smooth, but the performance scraped and scratched at the flesh. Most importantly of all, the album rocked. Back in 2004 Kings of Leon felt otherworldly and yet familiar. Dancing to “Razz”, “Soft” or “Four Kicks” at an indie disco felt wholly different to the sensation of jumping to one of a million post-Strokes acts – and yet they fitted alongside those bands perfectly. Aha Shake Heartbreak was skittish and bolder than the meek figures onstage – the Kings had successfully showcased a potential that extended far beyond Southern Strokes primitivism. David Hayter