Kings of Leon are a band with much to prove. It has been eight years since Only by the Night – their last truly great album – and the ensuing years have not exactly been a smooth ride. Between fisticuffs and live show mishaps – defecated upon by opportunistic seagulls and inter-band tantrums – there has been the general feeling the once-stunning band have lost the edge that made them such a hot prospect with Youth & Young Manhood – their debut that was rough-around-the-edges and incredible fun. That is not to say the entire 2008-2016 Kings of Leon output has been unsatisfying and pale: even in their less-than-fantastic albums they are capable of rock brilliance and incredible anthems. The problem with 2013’s Mechanical Bull was the fact it did not push the band’s music forward. Critics derided its by-the-numbers sound and were irked it did not add anything new to the Kings of Leon template. Not a disaster my any means: there were suggestions the tensions, troubles and issues within the band could lead to something wonderful.
If one looks back to Come Around Sundown – inarguably their worst album to date – the band, have at least, progressed from that. One of the red flags with that album, and something creeping into the band’s later work is the engineering towards stadium-sized choruses and big, bombastic songs. In that zeal for hands-in-the-air chanting, the band forgot to write actual songs – those that lodge deep into the bones and have that ragged, raw edge. Too clinical, safe and formulaic: troubled times and the need for the U.S. giants to change things up and take it back to the roots. Publicity for WALLS did offer a glimmer of hope and redemptive signs.
In an article with the B.B.C., the band explained the album and the reason for its arrival. WALLS is a record that finds Kings of Leon overcoming rivalries and squabble; moving on from Mechanical Bull’s disappointing sales – getting out of their ‘comfort zone’, as it were. Sojourning to L.A.: the band decided to ditch their old ways (and producer) and hire German-born Markus Dravs – someone who pushed them and did not let them hear the final results until he was happy. A mix of Sex Pistols-cum-early-days-Kings’ made WALLS sound like a wonderful proposition. Whether you capitalise the album’s title or use lower-case: there is no way of ignoring the fact it is very much a Mechanical Bull replica. Sure, there are some nods to their debut album, but largely, the band have not made the exciting leap one would hope – coming off too safe, sober and disciplined.
Lead-off track Waste a Moment offer glimmers of hope. The fast-racing guitars and insistent percussion put one in mind of Youth & Young Manhood’s teenage rebellion and out-after-curfew rebellion. Waste a Moment is a song that grows on you, and as such, gives the album a rather half-hearted introduction. Saying that: the band sound (on this track) like they are genuinely trying to revive the electricity and blues-soaked swagger of their early work – even if it does take a few listens to realise that. Reverend sees island-set strings and taut bass open the track up: leading to one of Caleb Followill’s most tender and tightest vocals on the album. Despite some typically undercooked lyrics – never a strong suit for the band – there is a sense of focus and vitality to be discovered. Find Me is certainly direct and charged: racing out the gates with aplomb and determination. As the introduction unwinds and expands: the eyes start to widen and wonder if the band has created something very Youth & Young Manhood/Aha Shake Heartbreak. It is a song that tries to revoke that spirit but sounds rather flat and tired – a track one could easily find in any of their previous albums.
Muchacho has been highlighted by critics and rightfully so: it is the album’s clear standout. Among the generic rock clatter and a need for attention: here the band take the lights down and create something genuinely emotional. In the zeal to return to their excitable, vivacious roots the band overlooked the necessity of emotional balance and introspection. Muchacho has elements of Bruce Springsteen and is a song you will definitely come back to. Luminous, whiskey-soaked electric strings and Followill’s finest vocal on the album make it a triumph. On this track, unusually for the band, the lyrics actually get into the mind and will cause you speculate and ponder. Eyes on You, given what has come before, seems a little fatigued and is one of the album’s filler tracks. Sure, there is enough kick and drive in the song but, once more, it is a Kings of Leon song that we have heard in many different forms before. The title track completes things and provides yet more emotiveness and tenderness. The boys are not ashamed or embarrassed to calm things down and go for the heart – something they should have done more on the album. A mature and soul-searching song from a band that have been accused of petulance, poor returns and losing their edge. They answer critics on songs like WALLS.
There were high hopes for Kings of Leon’s seventh album: the truth is, it is a good album but not a spectacular one. The U.S. band are strongest when turning the volume down and laying their heart out there. When they go for broke and try for something primal, they seem to return to that made-for-stadiums vibe of Mechanical Bull. Waste a Moment is an exception but there are a lot of clichéd and heard-it-before jams. As it stands, WALLS is an album with enough to keep die-hard fans satisfied: it is unlikely to recruit new ones or silence the doubters. Let’s hope their next album sees them genuinely return to what made them great in the first place: playing music for the barroom dwellers and young at heart. The stadium/arena sound is growing a little stale.
WALLS is available now on RCA