Coming to Terms With Kings of Leon, And Their New Album, WALLS

On October 20, 2016

Unless you're lucky, no band remains your favorite band forever. 5th grade's love of the Beatles turns to 10th grade's love of Led Zeppelin (and weed) turns to freshman year of college's love of Wu-Tang Clan turns to 25-year-old you's love of Animal Collective. This has been a part of modern music fandom since the first Bill Haley fans moved on to something else and he moved on to playing state fairs. Mufasa taught us.

Kings of Leon were my favorite band once. From sometime in 2004 until June 2007. I say this not in embarrassment--though I imagine some of you are chortling--and not as a way to measure myself against some imaginary yardstick. I bought Youth and Young Manhood right after it came out off a Rolling Stone review, only because they called them "the Southern Strokes" and since the Strokes were my favorite band at the time. They sounded cool, and “Molly’s Chambers” became the song most ringing out of my 1995 Dodge Spirit.

Kings of Leon were the only band of that “garage rock revival” that was--to my unpretentious, unlearned Oshkosh, Wisconsin raised self--unpretentious. The story of them being church kids sneaking off to listen to Rolling Stones records was maybe apocryphal, but to me it rang more true than whatever NYC lineage the Strokes were trying to claim, or the weird svengali backstory the Hives tried to force onto their narrative, or the artifice of the White Stripes. They were hayseeds like I was a hayseed; big, dumb idiots with bad haircuts and shitty facial hair writing songs about fucking and trying to fuck and getting fucked up. It was impossible not to be swept up in them; for better or or worse (probably worse) they represented a new version of youth and young manhood that felt more based on doing what you love at all costs than the version practiced by the guys who picked on me in the gym locker room in high school. I didn't know how the fuck I was ever going to get out of Oshkosh, but I knew that there was this incredible rock band who somehow got out of their bumfuck southern town by convincing RCA to sign them after seeing them play in their garage.

Anyways, from the time I first put needle to the groove on Aha Shake--fans never use the “heartbreak” on the title-- the Kings of Leon were my favorite band. Apologies to everyone I debated with at the pizza chain I worked at in high school and college; I said some stupid shit about the relative greatness of the Kings of Leon in those days. I saw them on the Aha Shake tour that summer, and they were the best live band I’d seen to that point. They were young, they were weird and they played for 90 minutes. I saw them the next summer too, when they were road testing the songs from what became Because of the Times. They were even better then. “Charmer” snapped like a live wire and was electrifying to my then 20-year-old self. I was buzzed on pilfered beer, and was sure this is how people felt at Woodstock.

 


I spent most of that fall on a new-ish website called YouTube, tracking down every single performance video I could. I bought Because of the Times on vinyl and CD the day it came out, and then bought tickets to see them that June. I can trace falling out with Kings of Leon to this concert, which was oversold and packed--to this day it had the worst pit I've ever experienced at a show and I saw Odd Future back when their shows were like the end of Apocalypse Now--and opened with the Kings walking to the stage to the 2001 theme like what we were about to see was akin to watching earth from the moon. It was not. They were just a rock band to me then. By the time I saw them at Lollapalooza 2007 the magic was gone. I didn't even like them more than Ziggy Marley at that fest, and I hate reggae.

I haven’t listened to Only By the Night since it became the preferred soundtrack of every Walgreen’s in the Midwest. I don't remember listening to Come Around Sundtown, but I'm sure I did. I watched that documentary about them on Netflix, but I think I slept during the middle third. I know I listened to Mechanical Bull, but you could convince me any of those songs were by Lee Brice and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

So consider me surprised when I pressed play on Walls a week ago out of some vague sense of obligation, and found out that I enjoyed it. Like, enjoyed it to the point that I’ve listened to it 15 times in the last week, and like six of those spent on an airplane, where I could have listened to literally anything else. I found myself choosing Walls because it’s a throwback; in a more perfect world, this was the record that dropped after Because the Times. The riffs are still those bright, shiny leads with just a little crunch; the only kind Matthew can play. The drum lines are uncluttered and like the spinning of a 22-inch rim on a 1979 Camaro. The bass is buried in the mix, but every once in a while you catch a little bit, and you realize that Jared somehow became one of the best rock bassists out; the pressure he’s had to have felt to be up to snuff in this band since they locked him in the garage to learn bass has paid off. There are stupid country songs (“Muchacho”). There are songs that sound like a Strokes song you’ve forgotten (“Eyes on You”). There are songs with lyrics and phrases that don’t make a single lick of sense (“Conversation Piece”). The title is a dumb acronym--We Are Like Love Songs--but this band has never been able to name anything.

But there are also songs about pausing to take a moment to realize your life is passing you by, and you should just chill (“Waste a Moment”). There’s also a song about losing yourself in your work--which in Caleb’s case, happens to be being a famous rock star--and only finding your true self once you’re in a good relationship (“Around the World”). And sure, do those songs hit as hard as like “Four Kicks” back in 2005? Of course not. But Walls is the first Kings of Leon album that is full of the kind of introspection that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with this band (though I don’t know if they got enough credit for talking about premature ejaculation and balding back in the day). Don’t look now, but Kings of Leon are grown up.    


 

***

I turned 30 this year. I'm losing hair at my hairline. My girlfriend and I talk about getting married, getting a mortgage. I worry I'm on the downward slope of my time being able to tell if something is "great" or if it's just something I like generally. Will I ever feel about a bunch of new music at 31 like I did at 21? Will I throw my identity into being a fan of someone or something ever again? Am I irrelevant? The kids are coming up from behind, as a poet many years my senior once said.

It's made me reflect on Kings of Leon too. I bought Aha Shake 11 and a half years ago. That's almost longer than my entire work history ago. Did Kings of Leon really ever change, or was it me?  Sure, they wrote “Sex on Fire,” but was that song really stupider than "The Bucket?" Sure, they got pilloried for being drunk idiots during the Sundown  tour but then again, I was a stupid drunk idiot for the first two  years after my first adult job with a comfortable paycheck I didn't have to struggle for too.
WALLS is an album about being old and happy and complacent and drunk and nostalgic and wistful, and I can't help but feel like for the first time since I was 21, me and Kings of Leon's life arc is lining up. It feels like I have my favorite band back. You can go home again.  

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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