Nashville, TN-natives Kings of Leon are the type of modern day alt/arena rock band that one would figure receives abundant questionable coverage from dime-a-dozen mainstream rock music blogs, and then some. Be it their envied stratospheric popularity, their early-to-mid noughties universal critical acclaim, or the clickbait-y inside family job they’ve got going for themselves—there is no such thing as scarcity of press icebreakers as far as the 1999-formed quartet. It’s therefore all the more surprising how this here unfolding before your very eyes gets filed as the first official album review by this site of anything lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Caleb, bassist Jared, lead guitarist Matthew, and stickman and BV-journeyer Nathan Followill have put out over more than two decades. Yet, as another reviewing taboo was demystified last summer, the time has come to entertain a virtual watercooler-blabbering conversation about Kings of Leon’s eight studio full length When You See Yourself, out worldwide just this past 5th of March Friday on the mighty RCA Records.
Whether one likes to admit it or not, Kings of Leon are one of only a handful residual overhyped, gentrified, and focus grouped bands to have come out alive the other side of the early 00s garage-rock revival mania. While it can be argued that at least some of their MO employed to withstand such ruthless and repellant industry plant cycle can attributed to, well, selling out, as well as shamelessly embracing the role of poster-children record business mercenaries (whatever that means in the current post-selfie, TikTok-era), there is quite a lot in the way of originality, refinement, and quality as part of their Southern rock-informed familial affair. One does certainly not need to be reminded of the radio-friendly and commercially-appealing ubiquity of their multi-platinum selling 2008 project Only By the Night, or the fact that the three brothers and one cousin stand hitherto nominated for as many as twelve Grammy Awards in their career—snatching four of them including Record of the Year and Best Rock Song for “Use Somebody” in 2010—to realise how warranted, highly-anticipated, and of ‘public interest matter’ any coverage of the issue of their first LP in five years oughta be.
This latest release of the collection of eleven new records on When You See Yourself represents the culmination of the longest gap in-between studio projects to date for the rock band, who chose once more to enlist British producer Markus Dravs after his work on the their preceding full length WALLS in 2016. What’s more, said limbo was reportedly slated to be less significant than the full five years it turned out to be, for main songwriter and lyricist Caleb allegedly began to mess around with first rough draft ideas of songs that would eventually land on KoL’s latest album as early as January from two years back. Unsurprisingly, had it not been for the largest public health cataclysm in a century, the record would have most likely seen the light of day at some point last year. Evidently though, that did not materialise, translating into an unsolicited epiphany affording the four Followill relatives a long and enduring de-briefing phase that helped them digest, marinate, and perfect the final batch of tracks that ended up being sequenced on this thing, making up for a robust 51 minutes of runtime by the way—almost a length colossus in the streaming age.
It is not just an unusual and business-allergic, if not externally-imposed, self-reflection that envelops some type of idiosyncrasy to this record, but perhaps even more un-analogue and old-school is the group’s unorthodox and avant-garde decision to employ distributed ledger technologies—also known as blockchain—to beef up the promotional cycle surrounding When You See Yourself. Partnering with US technology company YellowHeart, through a promo campaign wittily dubbed NFT YOURSELF Kings of Leon became the first band to offer an album as a so-called non-fungible token (NFT), a cryptocurrency-like artefact set to unlock unique perks for its holders such as limited-edition vinyl, multimedia artwork pieces, and front row seats coupled with premiere concierge treatment to all future concerts. So the band’s creative director Casey McGrath on the futuristic stunt: “We approached the release […] in such an analog way, from the band’s approach in the studio to shooting everything on film and went as far as literally pulling out the scotch tape and glue sticks, and dry transfer lettering. To approach NFT YOURSELF with a digital art mindset sent electricity through the work. For those in the space that understand, they’ll appreciate the techniques of audio-generated imaging, pose detection, and pixel morphing that we used to create this collectible art. For those that don’t, we hope they’ll appreciate the undeniable power and emotion that results from the collision of analog and digital.”
Now how does one follow that one up? Arguably only by delving head-first into the music lied to wax on this album. It was first premiered earlier in January this year by two lead singles “The Bandit“—a gritty and rough-around-the-edges trip down sonic KoL memory lane with Far West saloon-ish lyricism such as “Chiseled their names in stone / Heavy the load you tow / And the red horse is always close / And the fire don’t burn below“—as well as “100,000 People“, a clearer and more linear successor to some of the most subdued and contemplative work off WALLS, stretching over almost six minutes of dejected and defeated romantic balladry, with an appeal perhaps stronger for motion picture synchronisation than radio spins. Speaking of which during an informative and riveting chat with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, airplay potential and easy rotation were endgoals the four American purposefully tried to deliberately not chase during the studio and writing sessions for their latest outing. It is not hard to believe them in hindsight, with a finished body of work sporting just two cuts under four minutes of playtime, and as many as three fiercely running for longer than five minutes without ever overstaying their welcome. The latter crop of tracks include the nocturnal, hypnotic, and emotionally draining opener “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away” as well as the tastefully dour “A Wave“, which according to KoL’s frontman Caleb “has to stand out as one of the proudest moments in our career”.
Truth be told, the four Tennesseeans packed in reasons to be proud in spades on their latest studio effort. Look no further than the groovy, gorgeously self-aware and blue-eyed funk rock swagger of “Stormy Weather” at number four, or even the pernickety and luscious layered six-string work of the Come Around Sundown-sounding “Golden Restless Age” opening the LP’s C side. Having said that, the record’s back-end does suffer from a mild case of complacency and phoning-it-in-ness, found particularly severely on the symptomatically tired and underwhelming authoring underpinning the core of “Supermarket” as well as the bland, second-hand, overheated riff soup of the otherwise lyrically inspired “Echoing” sequenced on the album’s penultimate slot. Luckily for fans and the Leon royals themselves though, Caleb and bros. appear to outdo themselves compositionally on the extraordinarily exquisite curtain closing ballad “Fairytale“. The four minute arrangement comes in the form of a boneless and skeleton-free experimental number that sounds as if an algorithm synthetised the utmost worthy elements of their Only By the Night standout “Closer” and soaked them in the energy, vibes, and instrumental configuration of their most hardcore WALLS-era imprint. It thus becomes clear that whether in form of PR antics, or just bona fide songwriting, creative hybridity seems to be the only way Kings of Leon appear to push forward nowadays, particularly when they see themselves.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
KINGS OF LEON
WHEN YOU SEE YOURSELF
2021, RCA Records