Kings of Leon arrived like a hillbilly Ramones with a modicum of darkness and depth, but there's nothing below the surface anymore.
Less than 30 seconds in to "The End", the first song on their new full-length, I had an uncomfortable flash. The lyrics, those that are decipherable through Caleb Followill's marble-mouthed delivery anyway, reminded me of the same kind of small town, big dreams, fist pumping, mock-Springsteen anthems which became popular radio fodder in the late '80s. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn't go away: Kings of Leon, with their tight trousers, pointy shoes, sleeveless tops and earnest lyrics are one can of Aqua Net away from turning into a Bon Jovi tribute band.
Resisting a backlash is healthy, so when the world of the cool cognoscenti uniformly turned its back on Kings of Leon after they got insanely popular two years ago with their fourth album, Only By the Night, it only made me love them more. Well, "love" is a bit strong, because Kings of Leon don't come off like they want love anyway. For all their fabulous bluster, they've always been more of an awkward-fumbling-in-the-backseat-then-not-returning-phone-calls kind of a band. That worked for them, and it became absurdly clear they knew it in 2008 when they released the hilariously titled "Sex on Fire" and the presciently titled "Use Somebody".
If making the transition from hirsute indie rockers to stadium filler shortlisted for Glee theme episodes was the plan all along, it's paid off brilliantly.
But perhaps within the KOL cookie cutter tunes on Come Around Sundown are a few clues to what the future might have in store for the band, as well. Consider the likes of Darius Rucker, Jewel and Kid Rock, three middle-of-the road acts who turned dwindling commercial results into pure gold by "going country". There are more blatant nods to their rural lineage than ever before ("The Face", "Pickup Truck" and especially the pseudo-party stomp "Back Down South"), so perhaps a straight out contemporary country album isn't far behind.
While much of the music here comes on like it's been cut from the same drab cloth, the album is even less convincing when it goes astray: "Mary" is astonishingly bad, a '50s pastiche on which Caleb eventually gives up on lyrics entirely and bellows like a hyena trapped in a cage.
Come Around Sundown will undoubtedly give the fans who didn't realize Only By the Night wasn't really the first Kings of Leon album something to cheer about, but anyone hoping for a return to the relative insanity of "Holy Roller Novocaine" and "Trani", the honest inferiority complex of "Soft" or the initial thrill of hearing Jared's bass treated like a lead guitar isn't likely to find much to sink their teeth into this time around.
Kings of Leon arrived like a hillbilly Ramones with a modicum of darkness and depth, but there's nothing below the surface anymore. They're making shitloads of money in an era when few existing bands can manage the same, so it's a little hard to blame them for trying to continue the thread that got them to where they are in the first place. But that doesn't mean it's all that fun to listen to.
Come Around Sundown isn't a total disaster. "Radioactive" is a terrifically energetic romp, and "The End", "Pyro" and "Pickup Truck" are not dissimilar to some of the band's past successes, and it's not difficult to imagine some of the whole echoing off the back walls of massive stadiums. But the muddy guitars, falling-down-stairs beats, trebly bass and lupine yelps all blend together after a while like a reheated stew that was far more tasty the first time around. It's an album that feels more about hanging on to the sudden influx of fans than about moving the message (whatever that is) forward. Whether that's good or bad really depends upon your point of view.