It is September of 2009 and after managing to spend two-and-a-half hours hardly 20 feet from Jeff Tweedy and Wilco at a Minor League baseball stadium in upstate New York for a fraction of the cost that summer, I am feeling vaguely disillusioned as I fight the urge to stare at the big screens behind the stage. Kings of Leon kick off a murky album cut from their latest, Only By the Night,and it seems like my four friends and I are the only ones who’ve heard it before. The next song complicates the issue.
That bassline of “Knocked Up” is drawn slowly out of the speakers, as if summoned by the kick drum’s relentless call, but the incantation isn’t strong enough to raise the vast majority of still-seated spectators.
When the band dives right into “Use Somebody”, the surprise monster-hit which is single-handedly funding this tour, I am momentarily distracted from that eerie thingthat is at work beneath the surface here. Three minutes later, the fantasy collapses, as I watch half the arena clear out during the opening strains of “Black Thumbnail,” the kind of song that should be a
quick-and-dirty coda to get the last of the energy out, but is instead a disheartening reminder of who is buying these tickets and why.
Now, I’ll admit, I ama “fan” of the band. When “Sex on Fire” broke the top ten on the Billboard Rock charts, I didn’t feel disenfranchised. When Trey Songz covered “Use Somebody” on MTV’s Unplugged, I wasn’t offended. It was exhilarating to watch a band I grew up listening to cash in on our joint dream. My mother taught me well – I was alright with sharing. But without ever having accused the band of supposedly selling out, I can still say, with relative certainty, that Only By the Nightwas not the Kings’ best album, and like any fan would be after a release that is in even the slightest way disappointing, the two or three weeks leading up to the release of Come Around Sundown were fraught with nerves and unfounded prophesying.
The lead single, “Radioactive,” in no way aided by its atrocious Baptist choir barbecue video, went to number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart on Oct. 16, but has commanded a confusingly small radius of exposure compared to the omnipresence of “Use Somebody.” There was something from their recent singles notably absent in “Radioactive,” although not enough to make anyone take notice. In predicting the direction of the new album, the song betrayed little
ammunition for those on either side of the discussion.
But much in the same way that Kings of Leon could do nothing but walkout to greet the masses a year ago in their New Jersey concert, Come Around Sundowndoes the musical equivalent: it walksout casually, it doesn’t strut out Gene Simmons-style, nor does it shuffle along like a Malkmus disciple. It’s the unassuming but indisputably adept encore to Only By the Nightfrom a band that knows what it does best and how to keep doing it, even if that means having to watch a few people get up after the “good parts.” It’s not an alienating album by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t reach out to anyone not already listening.
Come Around Sundownopens with “The End,” a track that functions like an abstract for the rest of the album. It immediately makes the differences between this album and the last clear: the sound they began to fashion on Because of the Timesand realized on Only By the Nightis still intact, but they achieve it in a more subtle way. “The End” begins with a roomful of drums and a single-note guitar lick dipped by its heel into a pool of reverb, and although the dynamic does shift for the expected sweeping chorus, it doesn’t do so by funneling itself through the trademark fuzz of earlier efforts.
Throughout the album, Kings of Leon manufacture open space that invites the listener in, instead of creating a sonic barrier that needs breaking. “Pyro,” the expected second single, makes a play to usurp the throne of Weepy Sing-along Smash, arguably left vacant in the rock world since the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Scar Tissue,” with an arrangement that does, in its own way, recall the interplay between Frusciante, Smith, and Flea and lyrics that are gibberish, yet seem to somehow feel profound. “Pickup Truck” closes the albumby the same formula, although with an uncharacteristically perplexing rhythm that revolves around the juxtaposition of early snare accents and a snaky late bassline. which give an otherwise standard mid-tempo tune a refreshing sense of urgency and consequence.
What’s striking about this album is the steady momentum of the back half, a department that Kings of Leon have managed to muck up consistently on every previous album. You’ll wait in vain for this year’s model of “Velvet Snow” or “I Want You” but surprisingly,
nothing disrupts the brilliant sequence from “Beach Side” to “Pickup Truck.” “Beach Side” deserves mention in isolation for being the most honestly fun KoL song that, in a weird way, is legitimately unlike anything else the band has recorded. Even the skepticism a title like “Mi Amigo” might inspire is put to rest after its potent beat drops.
A one-to-one, track-by-track analysis of Come Around Sundowngives it a clear upperhand against most alternative album. What’s endearing and truly exciting about this album is that it gives the distinct impression of a band on the move. Some bands hurtle recklessly ahead, expending all of their energy at once to create a single memorable album, but Come Around Sundown establishes the Kings as a band still going somewhere.