Return Of The Kings

by Miles Rowland

I first heard Kings of Leon as a nine year old playing on my Playstation when Red Morning Light featured at the beginning of FIFA 2004. I was instantly captivated by the sludgy guitar intro and the first line: “You know you could’ve been a wonder, taking your circus to the sky”. This has proved something of a premonition for in 2013, 5 albums down the line, including a multi-platinum seller, and a highly successful V headline performance under their belts, Kings of Leon have truly taken their circus to the sky.

One month from now they will release their sixth album, Mechanical Bull, and judging from interviews with the band and material already released, all signs seem to point to a return to the more rough and ready sound of early days Kings. This for many will be long overdue, for the heavily produced and more commercial feel of Only By The Night and Come Around Sundown divided critics and fans alike. While some hailed singles like ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ as universally appealing anthems, others condemned the band for selling out and abandoning their roots. Either way one thing is for sure, the Followills have certainly come a long way from their sheltered childhood in Oklahoma.

Up until 1997 the three Followill brothers (lead guitarist Matthew is their cousin) had lived within the confines of Christianity, their father being a preacher of the Pentecostal Church. However, they relocated to Nashville following their father’s resignation and their parents’ divorce, and there began to embrace the rock and roll lifestyle that had been denied to them up to that point. Kings of Leon were therefore formed, and their first two albums Youth And Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak were released in two consecutive years, 2003 and 2004.

These releases mark Kings at their raw, unbridled best: the guitars are distorted and loud, and the ability of Caleb Followill’s vocals to transform a track, a key ingredient to their success, is clear from the outset. On high octane, irreverent tracks like Genius, Taper Jean Girl and the raucous Spiral Staircase, Matthew Followill lays down an infectious guitar riff, the drums come in, and the singer simply snarls and shrieks away – this kind of imperfection and swagger was what really defined their early sound and made them so exciting to listen to.

However the singer showed himself equally capable of giving his voice either a seductive lilt on tracks like Molly’s Chambers and the booty-call Holy Roller Novocaine, or a pained wail on The Bucket and personal favourite Milk. These last two seem particularly personal to the band and are genuinely emotional songs – the former was written about Jared, the youngest Followill and the struggles of dealing with fame as a teenager, and the latter about being dumped by a girl who just wants to party (“She had problems with drinking milk and being school tardy”).

2007’s Because Of The Times marked something of an interlude between Kings more youthful sound and the clean cut sound which gave them mainstream success. The shrieking is still present on tracks like Charmer, but perhaps here seems rather forced and is in fact quite hard to listen to. On Call, the album’s lead single sees Followill adopt a more polished vocal, and the song’s catchy and repetitive hook sounds more suited to rattling stadium roofs than pint glasses in a pub venue. It can be said this was a forewarning of the dramatic change which was about to happen when the band returned to the studio the following year. Anyone looking for a hidden gem should look no further than Ragoo, which sees Kings of Leon experiment with an interesting guitar riff reminiscent of English Indie bands such as Foals.

And then it happened. Sex On Fire hit Number 1, and the band were instantly propelled into the mainstream. Gone were ragged two minute bits of garage rock with sordid details of southern life, instead replaced by an arena rock sound which recalled U2 more than the Strokes and lyrics that somehow seemed less personal and meaningful, though Caleb Followill’s vocals were spot on as ever. No doubt songs like the political protest Crawl with it’s heavy distorted bass and brilliant guitar solo and Closer with its sonic bleeps and feedback showed they could still provide thrills, but there was something hollow about Only By The Night as a whole, as if the band had been pushed in a new direction they were not wholly comfortable with.

That said, they were clearly doing something right, for with a headline slot at Reading in 2009, they had hit the pinnacle of rock stardom. However, this huge break in the band’s career seemed to affect them negatively when it came down to the simple fact of songwriting. Come Around Sundown was the band’s real album to forget (barring the brilliant Back Down South), where the songs lacked inspiration and direction, each one seemingly building up to a big chorus that never showed itself.

This in mind, many will anticipate the new album not knowing quite what to expect. If lead single, Supersoaker, is anything to go by however, the band are pushing in the right direction. Distorted guitar and thudding bass give way to a jangly riff reminiscent of songs like The Bucket from Aha Shake Heartbreak, a sound which is sure to please fans of their earlier work, yet the huge chorus and fantastic breakdown late on in the song make this appealing to anyone. Even more exciting still is live footage of a song called Don’t Matter: this is a vintage rocker.

Signs for Mechanical Bull then, are good. Kings seem to be about to reclaim their throne with an album of revitalized energy which die-hard fans of their earlier material would happily file next to the likes of Youth And Young Manhood.