WALLS is the seventh studio album by Kings of Leon and they’ve decided to try and step outside of their comfort zones this time. For the first time since 2003’s What I Saw EP, the band have parted ways with producer Angelo Petraglia in favour of Markus Dravs, who is best known for his work with Coldplay, Florence & The Machine and Arcade Fire. It’s been thirteen years since their first release and perhaps that’s unlucky for some. The band certainly seem pretty determined to shake things up and make this album have some impact, or at least more impact than their last. The popular narrative is that their last two albums, Mechanical Bull and Come Around Sundown, did not achieve the critical acclaim or commercial peak that they soared to with their fourth album Only By The Night. It’s true there isn’t a story of uninterrupted global success and super-stardom continuing the unprecedented trajectory of their first four albums, but this is probably as much to do with personal issues as the strength of the follow-up releases. While extensively touring 2010’s Come Around Sundown lead-singer Caleb Followill lost it, appearing on stage intoxicated he abandoned a concert in Texas abruptly. Later that year the band were forced to go on hiatus, presumably while Caleb went through some sort of rehab programme. His brother, drummer Nathan Followill, was pretty confident in correctly predicting the hiatus would last no more than six months, showing that old family discipline has remained intact no matter how far the Followill brothers and cousin stray from their roots.
The band returned with Mechanical Bull in 2013, which by their standards is not a bad album at all but it came and went with surprisingly little fanfare. I’m guessing the band opted to underplay the promotion in order to make sure the demons of the Come Around Sundown tours didn’t repeat. So (if I’m right) with less promo the album stalled – although truly it sold well and was well-received by a faithful fan-base – it just didn’t really have any huge singles. If this is what the band are searching for now they may come up short again with WALLS, as the industry around giant singles simply doesn’t work the same way it did in 2008. However, seeing as the band have pre-released four tracks as singles, teasing the album in the run up to its release, I imagine they’re fully aware of the state of the industry and their position within it. They are here to re-establish themselves and ensure they keep selling out those arena tours.
The band’s rockumentary Talinhina Sky probably gives more of an insight into the band’s troubled years at the start of the decade by foreshadowing it during the recording sessions for Only By The Night. We saw three brothers and a cousin who had spent most of the last decade in vans that became buses, that became huge coaches and private jets. They’d left behind a youth of poverty and strict faith for the road and the bottle and they’d had little time to mature along the way. They were drinking heavily and getting the hump with each other even before that breakthrough moment, for as with any great breakthrough moment it is borne on the back of years of hard work. The most damaging impacts were clearly had by Caleb’s ego, which reared its ugly head only to be knocked back and knocked down when the critics treated them a little harsher around Come Down Sundown and the endless touring turned him into a bit of a cliché at the front of a cartoon band.
So, if WALLS is the sound of Kings of Leon at the end of that bump in the road, steering the ship back on course, what does that sound like now in 2016? ‘Waste A Moment’ starts the album with a pretty standard driving rocker for the group, with the same delayed guitars that have formed the blueprint for epic pop rock since U2 ruled the airwaves. ‘Reverend’ sounds like it’s going to be a pretty standard mid-tempo number, but it manages to take a bit of a side step on the chorus, with arpeggios and rhythms working against each other to pleasing effect. On close inspection it feels a little like an attempt to rework ‘Revelry’ from Only By The Night, there are some similarities in melody and vibe, but ‘Reverend’ doesn’t quite crank up the epic levels in the same way, there’s not enough space. Then the first major surprise (if you didn’t listen to it as a pre-release single) ‘Around The World’ comes in with an almost high-life guitar part and a funk bass, there’s a strong Arcade Fire influence on this one I’d say, the chorus falls away from the up-tempo verses in pleasing cascades of melody. It’s buoyant but maintains that air of melancholic mystery that is hard to put your finger on, but the very essence of what makes Kings of Leon’s music have such a mass appeal. It’s the way they take themselves so seriously, even within the context of this mock-funk party-music, and that actually makes for quite compelling listening. It’s the vulnerability behind the bravado that they allow to peek through just often enough.
Next up ‘Find Me’ drags out its intro with loud rhythmic guitar stabs which eventually break into a full-on chug. It’s a classic rocker but the mix hangs slightly oddly together, with a rhythm guitar that remains strangely over-loud for much of the track. Then, after the more standard AOR rock band sound we’ve just heard, ‘Over’ comes in with more of an epic 80s sound, with a driving bass and Caleb sounding a touch like Tom Smith from Editors. It’s a lush production number and works well as the end of Side 1 (this ten-track album sounds like it has been designed to take advantage of the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl), lasting for an epic six minutes. For the fourth and final verse Caleb lets rip with a passage of vocal where he’s really poured everything into it, and let it come out warts and all. He sings: “My angel hovers over/ The light comes crashing in/ I know it’s how this here story ends/ I’ll hang around forever, until you cut me down/ I’m crossed and ready to face the crowd”. In the context of the ‘don’t say it’s over’s that fill the choruses we could see this as Caleb committing to carrying on with the band, but also reconnecting with his faith and reconciling his rock’n’roll life with that as best he can. It’s a conflict that broods just beneath the surface of a lot of the Kings of Leon back catalogue but here it sounds cathartic.
‘Muchacho’ comes in as a real change of pace, with a wood-block led salsa rhythm, acoustics, electric piano and a deep baritone vocal. There’s even a lush 70s sounding guitar solo that fits the Southern Latin vibe of this mellow ballad. The whistling outro is a bit of a surprise, coming in strangely unadorned when everything else is so drenched in reverb, it lends an odd air to the final bars of the song. ‘Conversation Piece’ continues the mellow vibes, with soft keyboards that could well be those famous Mellotron flutes everyone knows from ‘Strawberry Fields’, although they’re playing more of a sustained padding role here and not aping that clichéd rhythm. It’s a nice enough number, but it slightly out-stays its welcome. ‘Eyes On You’ takes things up a notch, just as I was beginning to think the second half of the album was going to be strictly laid back. There’s a nice simplicity to the sound of this one, just the straightforward band, playing recognisable instrumentation with a few extra keyboard over-dubs. ‘Wild’ starts off sounding like it could break in with a wild and raucous sound, but when the drums hit it’s all restrained arpeggios. The electric piano takes charge in the verses and it’s a nice sound, but it doesn’t really touch the sides. It sounds like this one has verses that belong to a huge Kings of Leon hit, but the chorus isn’t quite there, so they’ve not bothered to turn on the production thumb screws. Before the last chorus the guitars fill out and open up a little more, but then dip back to safety for the chorus. It’s all very polite, but I’m not sure why I would expect anything else, these guys aren’t striving for the energy of Youth And Young Manhood here, it’s the stadium-filling emotional rock of Only By The Night they’re pitching for, whilst having a bit of fun along the way.
Final song ‘WALLS’ manages to achieve a lot without doing very much. There’s tonnes of space, simple effective parts measured out to give maximum breathing room to Caleb’s emotional vocal delivery, with only a subtle hi-hat loop marking time. The five-and-a-half minutes don’t seem over-played either and it’s a great track to end the album on. I, for one, am always a fan of the big stripped-back ballad when it comes to ending an adult-oriented rock record and here Kings of Leon get to sound like grand old southern gents, making a mature statement. What they’re trying to say though is a little harder to apprehend, WALLS has been reported as an acronym for ‘we are like love songs’. They may be trying to say the album is posing as ten love songs but, in fact, it’s deeper than that yet it’s not too obvious from the lyrics; ‘WALLS’ is full of vagaries about being a man, having your heartbroken and carrying on – which, let’s be honest, is nothing new.
The story of a seventh return-to-form album is an endearing one, but when did a band ever promote their new album by saying it’s not their best, just ‘okay’? The stories of Markus Dravs locking them in a room and making them play like The Sex Pistols, refusing to let them hear the results until they’re finished, certainly make for good sound bites but is that the sound we hear when we play the record? No! Not at all! In fact, going on those stories alone, I was quite amazed at how safe the album was. But anyone familiar with Markus Drav’s work on Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto or Viva La Vida, will not be too surprised by what we get here. I expect the change of producer is more about changing the experience for the band, to stop them stagnating, and Dravs was simply the safest pair of hands available and, let’s be honest, he’s not done a bad job of it. There are pleasing left-turns from the band’s usual sound (‘Muchacho’, ‘Around The World’) and there are expert renderings of the familiar (‘Waste A Moment’, ‘WALLS’) but this collection isn’t going to move the earth off its axis any time soon. This is the sound of a mature Kings of Leon retaining their position in the rock establishment, they’ve stretched out a little, tried a few new things and steeled themselves to tour the hell out of it. Good luck to them, I’d rather see them do well with this than many of their competitors. As I’ve said before there’s a hint of something, some vulnerability, some self-doubt riding just beneath the brusque machismo that keeps these guys just about on the right side of interesting. There may yet still be a great album in them, and while WALLS does plenty to keep them afloat, it’s not quite the career-defining moment that they want it to be.