Hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago when three brothers and a cousin from the Followill family of Oklahoma and Tennessee formed a band and named it Kings of Leon (KoL), in honor of their grandpa. They hit the music scene as one of the most original and talented new bands of their time, but the passing decades have seen them diminish to a shadow of their former selves.
The brothers grew up mostly on the road with their dad, who was a traveling preacher. When as young men they settled outside Nashville, their cousin Matthew joined them, and they started the band. Caleb is on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Jared on keyboard and bass, and Nathan on drums. Matthew plays lead guitar, and they all pitch in on backing vocals.
KoL has produced some of the most interesting and complex rhythm tracks in 21st-century rock. And this in an era when fewer and fewer music stars are even able to play an instrument, let alone sing live without digital help.
I’m not alone in being impressed. Of the seven albums they’ve made, all of them for RCA, two peaked at No. 3 on the US charts, and the rest went to No. 1. Yet they really haven’t had many hit singles. That’s the sign of a solid fanbase, always willing to buy the album.
Based on their first recording, Youth & Young Manhood (2003), it’s no surprise that the quartet started out hoping to play country music. But what they came up with instead was a quirky blend of traditional country blues with a large helping of Southern rock.
The raw sound of “Dusty,” with fingers audibly scraping along guitar necks, is a good example of their early work. Caleb makes his vocal delivery match the lonesome lope of the instruments, while the metrical solidity of the accompaniment gives him the freedom to stretch the phrasing of the lyrics.
A more melodic use of guitars can be heard in “Talihina Sky,” released as a hidden track after the closing song, “Holy Roller Novocain,” on that first CD. This is one of their aching, wistful songs that has a modal sound to it, moving between relative major and minor keys.
The second album was Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005), featuring a grittier sound, with aspects of garage rock mixing into the Southern angle now. This record was produced live in the studio, without overdubbing, under the watchful eye of British producer Ethan Johns.
The haunting “Day Old Blues” starts in traditional indie singer-songwriter style – just Caleb’s voice and acoustic guitar. But at 1:17, the rhythm section comes in and Caleb switches to his distinctive falsetto/yodel voice, a trait that keeps him tied to his Americana roots.
Jared lays down a hard-driving bass line at the opening of “Razz.” There’s not so much a melody as a frantic blues-rock chant over the chord changes. Matthew gets to show his stuff in a short solo. The energy is reminiscent of ZZ Top.
Because of the Times (2007) was the band’s first No. 1 album, yielding the hit single “On Call.” There are a lot of unusual songs on this record, but maybe the most curious and intriguing is “Ragoo” for its distinctive lead guitar riff and off-beat accents in the rhythm guitar, as the drums snake around both all the while.
This rather mystifying song seems to deal with the exuberance of youth, the impotent wisdom of aging, and, at one point, possibly the Civil War: “My pawpaw's slave had to go and fight the war/He beat them all, then he took them all to court.” Nobody can accuse this band of tin-type song lyrics.
KoL’s professional life changed after Because of the Times thanks to the relentless demands of fame. They were, for a moment, the biggest band in the world. The 2008 album Only by the Night shows unfortunate signs of a more standardized sound. Under what was doubtless pressure from RCA, managers, newer fans, and their own ambition, KoL became less daring and odd.
The album’s biggest single was “Use Somebody,” which won a Grammy, as did the song “Sex on Fire.” The non-single track “Cold Desert” might have a radio-friendly pop glaze drizzled over its country mournfulness, but it’s still a solidly built song.
Come Around Sundown (2010) starts ironically with “The End,” a nod to post-punk contemplation (The Cure, for example) built from a series of contrasting textures. And the harmonic choices are characteristically strange. The only chords used are B major, C# major, and D# minor. The dominant or “V” chord you’d expect at a cadence (F# major) is nowhere to be found. Very unusual in general, but not for these guys.
By this point, there were issues with substance abuse to contend with, not to mention the stress of the brothers having to be constantly together instead of leading individual lives. Plus, they had enjoyed being a niche band, a cult favorite, for the first few years, and now they were just plain rock stars.
Critics started complaining about the change in the band. Mechanical Bull (2013) sold well, but the press called it “woeful.” Reaction was widely divided for the 2016 album WALLS (standing for “We Are Like Love Songs”). Some hailed it as a return to the sound of their earlier days, while others labeled it “forgettable.” It went to the top of the charts anyway.
The song “Conversation Piece” contradicts the theory that this album is somehow a return to KoL’s past. This is a pleasantly poignant number with a heavy country-pop influence, tonal and consonant to a degree that used to be unthinkable for this band. The approach to production is also like that of a whole different group, with a dense sea of sound enveloping everything.
So, are KoL still active? Well, they ignored their 20th anniversary, which is not a promising sign. Currently only a handful of tour dates appear on their website, and there seems to be no new album in the pipeline. It’s been over three years since the last one. A review of one of their 2018 shows described the lackluster performance as “proof that both the world and the band have checked out for good.” They haven’t so much quit as fizzled away.