Nowadays, mentioning Kings of Leon’s music usually leads to a screech of “Ooooh, Your sex is on fiiiiyah”, but this wasn’t always the case. Before they hit the big time with tracks such as Sex On Fire, Use Somebody, Radioactive et cetera, et cetera, Kings of Leon were hairy man-children growling two-minute punk-rock songs about sex, spiral staircases and the South. Comprised of three brothers (Nathan, Caleb, Jared Followill) and their cousin (Matthew), the band are from southern America, from a large family of southern hicks; their Father was a travelling preacher and alcoholic and their mother thought Rock ‘n’ Roll was the devil’s music.
Their 2003 debut album Youth And Young Manhood is a far cry from their Number 1 Only By The Night; it’s gritty, rough around the edges and wholly original. Lead singer Caleb has attributed most of this to the fact that they couldn’t really play their instruments well back then. In fact, they weren’t musicians at all when they started. The two older members, Nathan and Caleb, discovered rock music through younger brother Jared’s CD collection, comprised of bands such as Pixies. They were originally a double act who were going to be assigned a band, until they told the record company that their baby brother and cousin would join them instead. While Matt played guitar before, Jared has said in interviews that he locked himself in his room with a bag of weed and a bass guitar, and came out few days later ready to rock and roll. He was still in high school at the time.
The album itself is somewhat chaotic, rarely pausing to let the listener catch up. In the slower tracks where we’re left to catch our breath, such as Dusty or Trani, there is none of the romantic crooning that you’d find on later albums. Dusty is a country-esque rock ballad, adding an extra twang every time you think you’re hearing something you recognise. Lyrically, classic imagery is subverted in accordance with their gritty, earthy sound: “The lips of your kisses are sticking like tape”. It’s the closest thing to a ballad on the main album, stopping the hyperactive race to the finish with a melancholy yearning to find a place “where thrills are cheap, and love is divine”.
The Other slow track, Trani, again fails to be romantic, instead covering the bases of prostitutes, transvestites and drugs, as well as the “bare chested boys going down on everything that their Mamma believes”. It’s stripped back and stark until the instrumental where the electric guitar adds to the strange tension of it being a sordid song that sounds kind of sexy. These tracks give a harsh view of what we can assume is Southern America, dabbling in the somewhat depressing social realism of the lower class. The last track on the album, Talihina Sky - which is hidden at 8:20 of Holy Roller Novocaine - has a sweet sound, heavy on the high end of the piano and largely acoustic plucked guitars. Even that, however, fails to romanticise life in the South (Talihina being a town in their home state of Oklahoma), with Caleb singing, “Everybody says this place is beautiful… everything’s the same / This town is pitiful, and I’ll be getting out as soon as I can fly”.
These honest lyrics are probably the highlight of this album for me. Every song tells a different story, and does so impressively, often in less than three minutes. Joe’s Head tells the story of a man who finds his girlfriend cheating, and kills the man she sleeps with, complete with a screaming Caleb. Molly’s Chambers – one of, if not the most famous from this album – talks of a femme fatale, a siren of sorts, Molly, armed with your pistol. Genius, a personal favourite, highlights the pressure on an artist people perceive as a genius, to the point where they can’t get alone time in their bathroom to masturbate, because people are “stickin’ to [them] like a prickly porcupine”. The most interesting story comes in Holy Roller Novocaine, which is, according to Caleb, about a priest who used to abuse female churchgoers. Singing us out with repeating “Lord’s gonna get us back, I know”, this final track shows how novel Kings of Leon were when they first appeared, singing about all that’s bleak, and doing it brilliantly.
The actual vocals on this record are somewhat strained (Caleb claimed he used to mumble on purpose so people couldn’t hear his lyrics), but this suits the rough and ready tone to the whole album. While it was undoubtedly well produced by producer-extraordinaire Ethan Johns, the tracks are hasty, and sometimes crude. Paired with the everyday stories of small town debauchery, this tone is perfect, and something the band never recaptured, as they got better at singing and playing their instruments. All in all, an interesting album, and an impressive debut from a band who will probably never sound like this again.