Kings of Leon lighten up on “Come Around Sundown”

Kings of Leon have made a career out of selling enticing images of moonlit, whiskey-soaked nights in the hot South with deserted dirt roads awaiting pretty girls in pickup trucks and skies full of stars that speak of boundless possibilities.

The inviting idea that you can put on one of their albums and go along for a fun ride has made them one of the biggest bands around today.

“Come Around Sundown,” the new album from the four Followills (three brothers and a cousin) delivers on the unspoken promise of increasingly better music that has been laid out by their previous albums.  From their first EP, “Holy Roller Novocaine” to their previous effort, “Only by the Night,” the musical growth of the band has been surprising, to say the least.

While their early efforts were impressive albums, they were essentially straight-forward rock albums with short, fast songs and in-your-face lyrics.  Beginning with 2007’s “Because of the Times” they began delving into darker territory with more emotional lyrics and a moodier, thicker musical atmosphere to match.  This darker theme was also prevalent on “Only by the Night,” the extremely successful follow-up to “Because of the Times.”

With the new album it seems that the Kings of Leon have lightened up a bit.  In a recent interview, drummer Nathan Followill described the new album as “beach-y,” though he is quick to say that this doesn’t necessarily mean it sounds like surf music.

“A record you listen to at the beach is a record that you don’t have to skip a song; it’s got a little bit of everything,” said Followill.

Though the album as a whole may be lighter in overall tone than the last two albums, a theme that seems to run consistent since the release of “Because of the Times” is a tendency to start each album out with a slower, moodier number, and “Come Around Sundown” is no exception.

The first track is ironically “The End,” and it starts off with a slow backbeat followed by a groove laid down by bassist Jared Followill, and the introduction of a lead guitar part.  The first verse is sung over nothing but the bass and drums.

Singer Caleb Followill’s aversion to more morose opening songs follows through with this album.  As with “Knocked Up” from “Because of the Times” and “Closer” from “Only by the Night,” tales of unrequited love and loneliness tend to be the theme for opening numbers.

The second number, ”Radioactive,” is a rock-song-turned-spiritual.  The first single off the album, the song changes the mood quickly to something more uplifting than we’re used to finding on their records.  “Pyro” follows next, a melodic, moving song that changes the tone to a shade of melancholy.

“I started writing … about a guy that was kind of fed up with it all and he thought that the world he was living in wasn’t the perfect world to him, so he goes and burns it down,” said Caleb when discussing “Pyro.”

The lyrics are somber as Caleb sings, “Everything I cherish is slowly dying or is gone.  Little shaken babies and drunkards seem to all agree, once the show gets started it’s bound to be a sight to see.”

Next comes “Mary,” one of three surprising tracks that prove Kings of Leon have not yet neared their creative peak.  “Mary” has a definite 50’s-style, Buddy Holly-vibe to it; “Back Down South” is a song based entirely off guitarist Matthew Followill’s lead line off his newly-acquired lap-steel guitar; and “Beach Side” sounds a bit like an emo/surf tune.  These tracks show that the band certainly seem to be stretching their musical arms a bit and getting more comfortable with exploring less familiar territory.

“Back Down South” especially is a welcome change in the band’s tone.  With the catchy lap-steel lead, a carefully placed fiddle track and an old-fashioned sing-along at the end, the song shows the band’s lighter side.

“It was one of the best times we ever had in the studio,” said cousin Matthew.  “For some reason, we started drinking whiskey so early… by the end of the night… 20 people, all the crew, everybody that worked there was in the room singing.”

Despite the new sounds on the record, die-hard fans of the band need not fear: vintage Kings of Leon is still here, and in full force.

“The Face” is a beautiful song that is definitely familiar territory for the Followills.  The song is driven by strong bass- and drum-lines and Caleb’s emotional lyrics of longing and isolation.

“The Immortals” is also classic Kings, with a more reserved verse that blows up into a large, melodic chorus with soaring background vocals.  The bass line for this song is almost reminiscent of early Cure; choppy, intense and effects-laden during the verse and big and bold during the chorus.

Another song that brings the Cure to mind is “Pony Up,” mostly because Nathan’s drum track sounds like it’s layered with overdubs, but in fact is only one track, with him playing everything at once.

One of the few rockers on the album, “No Money” is hard-charged and sounds like it could have been on either of the last two albums, as do both “Birthday,” a slower, groovier song and “Mi Amigo,” a quirky, fun song about the brutal honesty of good friends.

One of the best tracks on the album is “Pickup Truck,” the last song.  The Kings’ two previous albums have both ended with slow, swirling numbers that always evoke a kind of nostalgic melancholy.  The closing tracks are often similar to the opening songs, and the band’s tendency to “bookend” albums this way works well.

“Pickup Truck” starts off with guitar feedback and a melodic bass line before Caleb’s scratchy voice comes in, singing of sex, drinking and fighting: “Poor yourself on me, and you know I’m the one that you won’t forget.”

The chorus is classic Kings of Leon, with Caleb singing of drunken confrontations that he somehow defends and apologizes for simultaneously: “When he pulled in and revved it up, I said ‘You call that a pickup truck?’ and in the moonlight I threw him down, kickin’, screamin’ and running ‘round, a little piece of a bloody tooth, just so you’d know I was thinking of you.”

As an album “Come Around Sundown” works well, though not in the same darkened tone as the last two albums.  Both those albums carried moodier themes throughout, while the new effort is more eclectic.

With their experimentation on this album they haven’t lost their tone, they’ve just added to it.  The album works because of this: if they had recorded another album that sounded just like the last two, the record would sound stale.  Here we can see the band’s growth and are comforted by the fact that they haven’t lost their edge or distinctive sound.

“I think we’re barely scratching the surface right now of, you know, our potential musically; as musicians and songwriters,” said Nathan Followill.

Their musicianship is impressive indeed, with all members performing well; a feat in itself considering that they do very few takes to capture the final track, and have stated that most of the songs weren’t rehearsed.

“We don’t ever like to over-think anything,” said Caleb.  “We’ll go in there (the studio) and play it three times and if they say, ‘Give us one more,’ we’re like, ‘Come on, we did it three times; that’s what the song’s gonna be’.”

“Come Around Sundown” will be released Oct. 19, with a deluxe version available containing extra tracks.  The album is currently available to stream at kingsofleon.com.

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