WALLS, the latest effort by Nashville-based waistcoat enthusiasts Kings Of Leon, a band made up of brothers Caleb, Nathan, and Jared, with cousin Matthew on lead guitar, was released by RCA on October 14. Years since their mainstream breakthrough, is Kings’ polarising popularity the band’s legacy, or is it the one thing holding them back?
Once representing the beating, unadulterated heart of contemporary Americana, Kings of Leon have more recently become familiar as radio-friendly hit-makers, with a more global appeal than ever before, and a string of chart-topping success singles. Songs like “Use Somebody” and the notorious radio-pleaser “Sex On Fire” took them from theatres to stadiums in 2008, off the back of fourth album Only By The Night, and while many platinum certificates followed, many longtime fans cursed the perceived “selling out” of a sound which once listed Pixies and Lynyrd Skynyrd among their many influences. In 2016, their seventh album sets out to prove that they are more than just U2 fed through a sepia filter, playing from the back of a pickup truck at a county fair.
WALLS immediately seems to be going for a more current, artier feel, with cover art that could easily have been dragged from a discarded Pink Floyd concept. It’s a far cry from the straightforwardness of album covers past, the carnation of Aha Shake Heartbreak (another Pink Floyd alignment?) or the neon statement of Mechanical Bull. At first glance, the band’s curious tradition of five-syllable album titles appears to be broken with this, until you find that WALLS stands for We Are Like Love Songs, which makes precious little sense, but no less than previous titles. (Could WALLS be yet another Floyd reference, or am I reading too much into this?)
WALLS … sets out to prove that [Kings of Leon] are more than just U2 fed through a sepia filter, playing from the back of a pickup truck at a county fair
Opener “Waste A Moment” and following track “Reverend” provide a double-header of the band’s more anthemic, stadium-friendly talents, as Caleb’s unmistakeable lead vocal shines as bright as ever, guitars provide sparkly highlights, and bass works with drums to underpin steady, danceable rhythms. Stories of everyday folk, with rhyming couplets like “He’s a livewire, wired shooting sparks in the night / He’s a gun for a hire, hired with a bead in his sights” seem to aim at a modern-day Springsteen vibe. “Reverend”, an homage to country singer Blaze Foley, features the opening bout of “On the lam cut down in the middle of the night caught in a trap / Crushed by the cry of the wandering man who was never coming back”, and paints visual imagery of the Deep South, neatly harking back to Kings’ domestic roots and painting a sympathetic, Bonnie-and-Clyde vision of working-class America.
“Around The World”, while perhaps the album’s most upbeat, happy-go-lucky moment (lacking the nursery rhymes of the Chili Peppers’ song of the same name), with springing harpsichords and a winning guitar part, is more in line with Vampire Weekend’s mid-2000s indie disco sound than it is with The Band. The chorus loses none of the verse’s boisterous energy and could easily be found in an Imagine Dragons tune, but while it’ll easily trouble the Billboard Top 40, it’s bound to fall flat with vinyl purists (or anybody who tends to curse music designed for success over perceived musical technicality). “Find Me” is another up-tempo number, built around emotional minor-key chord sequences, and a guitar barrage which sounds like Johnny Marr On Ice. The song’s only gripe is an entirely out-of-place synth part, at no point more intrusive than the outro, which comes across as more of a studio afterthought.
“Waste A Moment” … paints visual imagery of the Deep South, neatly harking back to Kings’ domestic roots and painting a sympathetic, Bonnie-and-Clyde vision of working-class America
The album begins to drop off by the time we arrive at the mellow duo of “Muchacho”, with its lazy Southern stomp (a cynical appeal to the Hispanic demographic?), and sleepy companion “Conversation Piece”. The two prove that, while intentions may have been earnest, no amount of quiet guitar arpeggios and aimless lyrical promises (“won’t you come around my way for some conversation please?”), can polish a dirge. “Eyes On You” features a promisingly snappy rhythm but teases that same, sore-thumb synth from “Find Me”, and can never quite escape the notion that it’s a poor Strokes cover we’re listening to, rather than a future album-cut classic.
Title track and unabashed album-closer “WALLS” distantly echoes the sound of “Home” by the Foo Fighters, another all-American staple of rock radio. A conspicuous side-chained MIDI kick and sharp, buzzy synths appear once or twice behind the acoustic guitars and lilting piano, only to fade out. The result is a song which isn’t completely rock and roll, nor a full-on, shameless attempt to appeal to the “club music” scene, as Coldplay culpably did with the excitable format of their single “A Sky Full of Stars”. In the pantheon of “rock bands trying to be electronic”, it’s not too far one way or the other, failing somewhat at both.
I honestly believe that WALLS triumphs when it zeroes in on what endeared Kings to so many in the early 2000s, an audial road trip of patchwork storytelling built on the trials and triumphs of rural, evangelical Dixie. In 2016, where streaming and studio-penned pop hits reign supreme, the Followills seem to try a little too hard in places to keep pace with similar acts who’ve directed their sound more toward stadia, and less towards the bar-room authenticity which built them up. Where Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, and so many other traditional bands have swapped the rawer sound for radio-friendliness, there remains no real substitute for songwriting.
Josh Will Eden