After the four-year party, the Followills come of age
R emember Kings Of Leon? Or has it been too long? They were Tennessee’s very own apple-shaking, cinnamon-throwing, gak-hoovering answer to The Waltons, raised in the not-so-spacious backseat of a destitute 1988 Oldsmobile driven by their pa around the American south’s Bible Belt while he preached fire, brimstone and sulphurous lakes of flame to the faithful. However, after not unreasonably coming to the conclusion that all the best broads were probably in hell anyway, the Followill brethren eschewed the Christian life in favour of the dark, debauched ways of rock’n’roll. And stone the crows if they didn’t have a ball embracing it.
It helped that they were rather good, of course. Their whisky-soaked, nicotine-stained debut album ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ was one of the great records of 2003, and while its follow-up, 2004’s ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’, had neither its predecessor’s element of surprise or its seemingly never-ending stream of singles, it was a triumph of substance over not-inconsiderable style nonetheless. But what really piqued our interest was the filth; the mountains of drugs, the fountains of booze, the veritable zoo of new and unheard-of genital parasites – it was one hell of a party, but one killer hangover. Especially when Kings Of Leon woke up one morning to discover they’d contracted the worst STD of all: children.
OK, not literally, although we’d be gobsmacked if there hadn’t been a few scares along the way. But when you consider that the last we heard, they were in a seedy hotel room drawling “You’re not so nice, but sex sells so cheap” on ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’’s opener, the first lines of ‘Because Of The Times’ show that a little growing up goes a long way.
“I don’t care what nobody says”, croaks Caleb gently over the opening chords of ‘Knocked Up’, “we’re gonna have a baby”. Meandering in at over seven minutes long and with nothing that could realistically be mistaken for a chorus, it’s a dark, downbeat introduction to the band’s third album. Indeed, it could almost have been taken from Springsteen’s bleaker-than-bleak ‘Nebraska’, and it works perfectly.
Following on from the precedent set by ‘Aha…’, Kings Of Leon are revealing themselves to be one of those bands whose records get progressively more fascinating as they get older, unconcerned that the lack of tunes could see their sales slump like a penguin under Pete Doherty’s arm. Take ‘Charmer’, for example – driven by Jared’s plodding, Kim Deal-esque bassline, it’s a howling, primal, downright unsettling listen that’ll have the terminally short of patience reaching to reload ‘Molly’s Chambers’, and sharpish. Same goes for ‘McFearless’. Cut from the same oily, sulphate-stained cloth, it’s a million miles away from the Creedence Clearwater Regurgitated sound many would have expected them to return to after the experimentation of ‘Aha…’, and it demands perseverance before it pays off. Radical New Direction is a bit strong, but it’s clear that KOL, along with long-time producer Ethan Johns, have been striving to add a new dimension to a band previously accused of having all the depth of a puddle.
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Not that everyone’s favourite doyens of prostate-endangering denim have gone all po-faced on us. After all, being in Kings Of Leon is a fucking riot, as shown by the shuffly-veering-on-violent funk of ‘My Party’, in which Caleb – rather hilariously for a man who appears to weigh no more than the average paperweight – threatens to “Flip you upside down and mop this place”. And on the rather fantastic ‘Fans’ – a semi-acoustic anthem-in-waiting that’s perhaps the closest this record gets to old-school KOL – he’s even forced to admit that London’s “Rainy days, they ain’t so bad when you’re the King/The King they want to be”.
Yet these dalliances are brief, as this is an album all about growing up and moving on – Jared’s almost old enough to buy his own drinks these days, after all. And so you get a triumvirate of truly special moments, from ‘True Love Way’’s epic, stadia-filling self-reflection, to ‘The Runner’’s ghostly Overlook Hotel-esque waltz, in which Caleb concedes that “I talk to Jesus every day”, to the sublime, slow-burning ‘Arizona’, which brings things to a suitably huge close. Boasting all the wide open space of U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ without any of the overblown pomp to spoil it, it’s without doubt the best thing the band have ever recorded.
As ever with Kings Of Leon, this record is a song or two too long and, in a rather alarming (for their record company, not you) continuation of form, worryingly light when it comes to the kind of tunes that’ll get you tearing the seams of your jeans on the dancefloor. But that’s a problem for the accountants. As it stands, ‘Because Of The Times’ cements Kings Of Leon as one of the great American bands of our times. It’s good to have them back.