Kings of Leon, like a lot of acts well into their second decade of existence, find themselves at something of a crossroads. It’s hard to keep churning out albums that keep the people coming and at some point, acts have to wonder if they should either change course or take the easy way out and become a nostalgia act. Of course, some bands, most notably Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam have resisted the impulse to follow either path, but they are something of a rarity. More often than not, you get a U2 or Green Day, bands who changed their collective identity with the hopes of reigniting the spark that initially lit the fire of their careers.
Even Phish changed their vibe some, pointing their inherent weirdness towards what they called “cow-funk” in the late 90s, a move that helped focus their sound and give them a new direction as they headed into the new century.
With Kings of Leon, it’s tricky. They already made their move when it comes to changing things up. It happened over the course of their third and fourth albums, as they made the transition from a Southern, country rock-fueled version of The Strokes to a Southern, country rock-fueled version of U2. Seeing as how young they were when they started, the early change could be attributed to their natural development as of band. But even still, they played the course correction card early, making it hard for them to do it again. Just because Weezer keeps playing that card doesn’t make it right.
Since that fourth album, 2008’s Only By The Night, the band has, for the most part, stayed the course when it comes to the sound they transitioned to around that time. Unfortunately, it hasn’t done much to keep the light on of their career and relevancy as their past two or three albums have been released without much fanfare. The general consensus is that most people would still rather hear “Sex On Fire” than anything off of 2013’s Mechanical Bull. And that leads us to the proposition of them running with that and steering their career toward Nostalgia Town. It’s a hard, but ultimately profitable pill to swallow.
On Friday, they’re set to release their eighth album When You See Yourself. It’s their first new album in almost five years following the release of 2016’s WALLS. How the album is received will no doubt play a fairly sizeable role in determining what the band does in these next few years. You can only release so many albums that fail to make a dent in the zeitgeist before some self-reflection needs to happen.
What’s a shame is that coming out of the gate, the band showed so much potential as their first two albums are shit-kicking, alt-country gold. Whether or not that sound was sustainable or not will never really be known because starting with their third album, Because Of The Times, the band began expanding their sound. They’re not alone though. The same thing happened to their northeastern counterparts The Strokes and their midwest contemporaries The Black Keys. All three bands entered the arena with a minimalistic ethos to their sound but as the fight went on, they each began digging into their respective toolboxes.
Then The Strokes disappeared for a stretch, as did The Black Keys. But with the exception of a brief reprieve, Kings of Leon continued to solider on and if anything, it opened themselves up to a level of criticism those other two bands were able to avoid. Then you couple that with the overall slide of rock music from the mainstream and it’s how you find Kings of Leon a band without a country as they near the end of their second decade together.
Talking about the over-arching themes of how the band found themselves where they are in 2021 is one thing, but digging into their catalog is another way of examing how the band got here. For a list of the best Kings of Leon songs, you can find one here. But for right now, let’s talk about their albums.
7. WALLS (2016)
WALLS is a solid, sure, it’s fine album. There are a few winners on there, but there are also a couple head-scratchers and in between are one or two songs that have just straight-up vanished into thin air. Perhaps the most interesting thing about WALLS is that A) the title is an acronym for We All Like Love Songs and B) the band apparently has an unofficial tradition of giving their albums five-syllable titles. I did not know that. Walls is also the band’s shortest album, clocking in at ten songs. And while on the one hand, that’s kind of interesting, but on the other hand, does that even matter? Albums themselves are in a precarious position these days and I suppose if you are going to go through the hassle of writing and recording one, making it short might be the best way to go.
6. Only By The Night (2008)
“Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” might the two songs that are at the front of every conversation someone might have about this album but I would counter that the albums first and second tracks are monsters. Earlier this year I ranked the 50 best opening tracks and while “Closer” wasn’t there, if the list were to expand and be about the best combination of songs to kick off an album, “Closer” and “Crawl” would be up there. “Crawl” especially has a killer swagger to it. The rest of the album is solid and deserves all of the praise it received when it was released, but at the same time, it feels a little flat when compared to the band’s other albums.
5. Come Around Sundown (2010)
By the end of their first decade, Kings of Leon could be forgiven for feeling slightly drained. They had released four albums at a pretty impressive clip and had become one of the biggest acts in music thanks in large part to the mammoth success of “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” off of Only By The Night. Come Around Sundown has always felt like a reaction to those years as it has a relaxed, slightly tired feel to it. But it’s the kind of tired feeling that comes from a long day at work, that kind of earned exhaustion. The album also lacks some of the urgency and swinging dick, self-assured for days bravado of the band’s first four albums. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad album, it’s just a different album. I ride with “Pyro” though and the album has a hell of a back end.
4. Youth And Young Manhood (2003)
Man, if there was only a way to visibly represent how this album sounds.
I love when a band’s debut album just sounds so damn hungry that you can feel them giving everything they have in their bodies and soul into each song. This album rarely takes its foot off the peddle and when it does, it’s only because they don’t want to careen off the road into a ditch but good God, they come so close to being out of control it’s exhilarating.
3. Mechanical Bull (2013)
If there is hope for Kings of Leon going forward, it should be based largely on their 2013 album Mechanical Bull. The album is a great combination of what they had started doing with Because Of The Times and insight into the different musical avenues they could possibly head down. What sticks out about Mechanical Bull are songs like “Rock City” and “Family Tree,” songs with some groove to them, which is something you wouldn’t really have said about a Kings album before. But there were also songs like “Temple” and “Supersoaker,” which sounded like the older cousins of some of their earlier songs. Truth be told, I’d feel better about this new Kings album if WALLS hadn’t gotten in the way and they were riding the momentum of Mechanical Bull. Also, Mechanical Bull is a fantastic album title.
2. Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)
A band’s second album is the one where they either take a step forward and provide a glimpse into what they could eventually become or where they shit themselves and are then never heard from again. For Kings of Leon, they took what they had learned from Youth And Young Manhood and doubled down, putting together an album that was a solid step forward for them. It’s full of some damn good, shit-kicking rock songs and I personally don’t want to imagine a world where I don’t listen to “Four Kicks” at full volume at least once a week. Between you and me, that song fucking rocks.
1. Because Of The Times (2007)
This is their bridge album where Kings of Leon started to spread their wings a bit and build upon the sound they had started to establish with their first two albums. The DNA of those first two albums is still there but it’s infused with ambition and a desire to see what else there was out there. The opening track, “Knocked Up,” is over seven minutes long. That’s about three and a half songs on Aha Shake Heartbreak. For purists and devotees of those earlier albums, Because Of The Times could be viewed as them starting down the sorry road of selling out but I have never looked at it that way. I always saw it as a band developing naturally and organically expanding their sound. It’s not as if they started doing pop songs or shit, cheese ball country. At its core, Because Of The Times is still Kings of Leon, just a version of the band that is more experienced, has been exposed to more things, and has the tools available to do some enjoyable experimenting. If anything, Because Of The Times could be viewed as the most authentic Kings of Leon album as it represents both who they were and what they wanted to be.