It’s been three years since Kings of Leon released their sixth album Mechanical Bull, a project that failed to see neither the commercial success of their 2008 breakthrough Only By The Night or the promised a return to the quality rock aesthetic of the band’s early albums. It suggested the band had run out of ideas and threatened to prove their peak had been reached years ago. Following tantrum reactions to their success in the ‘Sex on Fire’ days and an apparent bettering of in-band relationships since, their seventh installment, WALLS, is released with most likely minimal effect on the group’s career or legacy.
So, with resentment towards the grand headline anthems that earnt them mainstream recognition and a misfiring attempt of a record to revitalise the classic yet widely unrecognised old-school KOL racket, where are the band to go with WALLS?
The answer seems to be a bit in the past, a bit in new territory and a bit in the comfort zone. Lead single ‘Waste a Moment’ kicks the record off and hangs on to the heavily reverbed guitars the band have come to adopt whilst returning to the garage pace of 2003’s Youth and Young Manhood. Following this is ‘Reverend’, a plodding stadium track that seems to have learnt from Come Around Sundown’s coastal melodies, and surely can’t be anything but ‘a bit boring’ when performed live.
However, the band do surprise and excel with songs like ‘Muchacho’, a ballad reminiscent of Aha Shake Heartbreak yet wholly original, and riffy return-to-form tunes such as ‘Find Me’ and ‘Eyes on You’. Even the acoustic title track ‘WALLS’ is slow and solemn enough to make you stop doing anything and stare blankly as the album closes. In interviews, the Followills have spoken of the album’s personal themes and there’s enough sonic emotion here to see this. But best of all is how relaxed the band sound again.
Having already released a series of pretty abstract music videos, the album cover features four feminised faces of the band members, mournfully emerging from a pool of what looks like semen, possibly some metaphor for their recovery from the self-indulged complacency of Mechanical Bull. And in fairness, WALLS sounds like a much more sincere and enjoyable effort for the band themselves, and hopefully for the fans who hear it.
Caleb, the band’s shy yet sulky singer, has finally managed to match his voice to his sexiness, employing a passable amount of passion in his songs and resembling Brandon Flowers of The Killers with a bit of Springsteen in the choruses. He even whips out at times the desperate, broken-voice style so unique to original Kings of Leon that he starts to sound like he might not be having such a shit time after all.
But as ever, the band’s tragic flaw lies in Caleb’s uninspired lyrics. In the long-haired days of old, he could get away with this but now, emphasised more than ever, the weakest words stick out like Caleb’s receding hairline, nearly ruining ‘Around the World’, a would-be whiskey bar banger save for the cringeworthy gap year claim of having “been around the world, all around the world, I lost myself and found a girl”.
Kings of Leon’s hubris sadly lies in no longer seeking the diversity of their early career, and the fact that Only By The Night, an intended experimental album, managed to rocket them to fame. But as so often happens, fame—and the fact your fans are paying to hear you sing about being on fire whilst having sex—has perplexed and frustrated the band to the point that they’ve applied a safety belt to their sound. Drummer Nathan’s once wrist-breaking rhythms sound arthritic in comparison. The Killers-ness doesn’t just stop with Caleb, as the band frequently go for the ‘please-sing-along-with-us’ chorus backed by over-the-top euphoric guitars, especially on ‘Over’ and ‘Conversation Piece’.
WALLS is, on the whole, not a bad effort for a band having to consolidate the ground they’ve lost to similar-sounding talent like Alabama Shakes, The Orwells and The War on Drugs, to name a few. But this album does present the sad possibility that Kings of Leon are a band smouldering, wrestling with relevance and soon to be beaten. WALLS isn’t going to be anywhere near as good as their best for fans, conservative or recent, but it offers enough interesting moments to give them hope.