Rating: **1/2 (out of 5)
Contemporary rock n’ roll lost its nascent romance the day the Internet replaced CDs as music’s primary vehicle of distribution. A generation of go-getting vinyl hounds once flipped burgers and mowed lawns to afford an hour of recording time for that five-song EP that was supposed to change the world. Record producers used to tramp the late-night dives like hapless winos, scrounging for the latest gem in pop/rock novelty. Nowadays, the rags-to-riches mythology that once imbued popular music with a “you-can-make-it-too!” electricity lies grounded in the passivity of YouTube and iTunes. In a scene where Auto-Tune mitigates any “radical” notions of real talent and where all artists rely on either live performances or singles’ marketability in order to make a living, who actually aspires to be the next Justin Bieber ?
From their humble beginnings as the sons of a travelling Pentecostal preacher to their status as platinum-selling international rock stars, the Tennessee-born Kings of Leon claim as much of the folklore of a bygone rock n’ roll success story as any recent rock band. It helps that their hyper-religious upbringing denied them the excesses of a typical musician’s lifestyle: emancipated from their father while still enrolled in high school, the Followill brothers embraced their newfound freedom with all the enthusiasm of the previously repressed, locking themselves in a basement with an ounce of marijuana to record their first album, Youth and Young Manhood. As it developed its barely lo-fi garage sound under the auspices of Southern guitar rock, Kings of Leon found critical and commercial success. Fortunately for the group, its honest talent outlasted its novelty. Underneath the caricature of four scraggly-haired, Tennessee-bred brothers recently freed from the constraints of religious suppression was a group of budding audiophiles whose knack for interweaving tight guitar lines with hauntingly powerful vocals made for increasingly listenable pop music. Sure, in the process they cut and coiffed their hair and started wearing tighter jeans, but such was the price of the band’s maturation. Their latest release, Come Around Sundown, aims for the same conquering heights that they strived for in their previous album, Only by the Night. Once inheritors to the Strokes’ garage pop empire, the brothers Followill continue to inflate the bombast of their increasingly mainstream sound in an all-or-nothing quest to usurp U2. Caleb Followill’s voice used to crawl into your ears like a whiskey-soaked whimper, incoherent in its delivery but charged with enough nostalgic melancholy to make you shiver while smiling. Now it soars higher than Morrissey on steroids, almost overcompensating for a lack of emotion, but never abandoning the scratches of that croony Southern drawl that intrigue so many of us.
Unfortunately, Come Around Sundown fails to live up to Caleb Followill’s promise of a return-to-their-roots aesthetic, instead succumbing to the mainstream demands of a “Sex On Fire” rehash. Like Only by the Night before it, Come Around Sundown starts off in an uncertain haze of fuzzy guitars and reverberated percussion, but unlike the ominous swell of Only by the Night’s “Closer,” “The End” stumbles through recycled melodies with an ennui characteristic of rock stars losing their edge. “Radioactive,” the most pre-packaged single on their new album, finds the Kings juggling instantly forgettable staccato riffs with Caleb Followill’s meager Bono impersonation. Sermonizing lyrics like “the sons and daughters in all their glory, it’s gonna shape them / and when they clash and come together and start rising / just drink the water” make it hard to believe that the same scruffy punk sang “I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party but I’m soft” only four years earlier.
On songs like “The Face” and “Beach Side,” moments of instrumentation—used traditionally in the Kings’ canon as explosive afterthoughts to Caleb Followill’s emotional garble—instead feel out of place, meandering between chorus and verse with hardly an inclination of where to go next. “Back Down South,” an attempt to send the Followills’ sound in a folksier direction, instead demonstrates just how little a violin, a lap steel guitar, and three-part harmonies can save a tired ballad. In pursuit of its roots, Kings of Leon instead found parody.
Held back by unfounded pretensions of saving rock n’ roll, Come Around Sundown tosses around some captivating ideas, but before realizing its full potential, the album grinds through an exhausted arena-rock formula. As a result, the interplay between the wiry guitars and bouncy bass on “Pony Up” finds its footing without compelling vocal support, and “No Money” trips into generic “oohs” and “aahs” before allowing its metallic drive to reach full speed.
All in all, Kings of Leon desperately needs to invoke the same ambition that prompted earlier, more radical changes in its sound. Come Around Sundown plays out like Only by the Night’s frumpy younger brother, constantly living in the shadow of his unsullied, inventive older sibling. Hopelessly unable to stop imitating its predecessor, the album walks heartily, but isn’t quite able to find its stride.