Kings Of Leon simmer in arena rock’s shadow

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The modern rock band is constantly evolving, and it has now reached the point of old dogs learning new tricks, with acts like Foo Fighters, The Strokes and Weezer finding new pallets to paint with. Nashville’s own Kings Of Leon is no different, as their new album, “When You See Yourself,” finds them winding through more subdued melodies and contemplative song structures.  

The initial conception of Kings Of Leon in the early 2000s was one of southern rock swagger mixed with modern rock flash and flare. Their previous effort, 2016’s “WALLS,” planted some seeds in the transition from big rock to smaller, more sensitive songs. Now, in the presence of a global pandemic and a seemingly eternal absence of live music, the seasoned industry veterans search for newer, even more intriguing avenues in their new release. 

The first side of this record in particular has a sense of thoughtfulness to it. The opening track, “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away,” is a bouncing workout of chiming guitars and busy percussion work. As lead singer Caleb Followill pleads “One more night, one more night, will you stay here?,” you don’t just listen and take it in; you find yourself pondering the question. Throughout the album, Followill’s lyrics are less about volume and more about content. Rock music is seldom lyrically-driven, but Kings Of Leon’s marriage of songwriting and musicianship is a unique blend previously untouched by the band. 

Despite the overall calmer energy of the album, there are still echoes of the group’s rollicking roots. For those missing the hard rock drive of “Sex On Fire” or the anthemic crash of “Use Somebody,” there is “The Bandit,” an urgent new-wave rock song powered by a rolling bass line and shimmering guitar leads. There is also “Echoing,” a rock and roll march that gives the somewhat weaker second half of the record a little more bite.  

The album’s most alluring aspect is its style of restraint. We know Kings Of Leon is capable of huge rock music, but the more impressive feat is when they’re able to hold back the urge to hit their instruments as loud as possible. Once again, the opening track shows its legs in its unwillingness to drive forward. The song never really takes off, but somehow, it works. Even the album’s more upbeat tracks, like the Motown soul-tinged “Stormy Weather,” decide to sit inside their grooves instead of punching through them. 

The hunger for rock music is perhaps larger than it’s been in recent memory, as live music being completely obliterated by COVID-19 has surely pressed on fans’ yearning for loud guitars and rock energy. However, the essence of this record is pretty clear: There is a place between big-time arena rock and downhome blues-rock crunch, and Kings of Leon have settled there. When Followill assures us “Better late than never, this is just a taste” on “Stormy Weather,” he isn’t lying. On “When You See Yourself,” Kings Of Leon calms the nerves about the supposedly imminent “death” of rock music. It isn’t dying; it’s just changing.  

Rating: 4/5 

Thumbnail image courtesy of @KingsOfLeon on Twitter.

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