‘Come Around Sundown’, the 5th album from The Kings Of Leon, sports an image of a picturesque sunset of a tropical beach upon its cover. The first track, The End, is one in which we find the lead singer Caleb Followill repeatedly telling us “this could be the end, this could be the end.” And while one never really believes that this foursome of close family members is actually nearing their finish as a band, the album does seem to be a definite conclusion to the sound of the band that released their first 3 albums.
The best descriptive one comes away with after taking in ‘Come Around Sundown’ is confusion. What exactly is this album supposed to be? Gone is the gritty bass, slurred lyrics, and uniquely intriguing-yet-simple song progression that we’ve come to expect from KOL. Instead one finds songs that are relatively uncomplicated and somewhat similar to each other, replete with lyrics that are simple to understand and overtly sing-along-friendly. Oh, and there are country songs.
The first three songs of the album; The End, Radioactive, and Pyro all showcase the manner is which most of the tracks on ‘Come Around Sundown’ are composed. There is an unusually heavy emphasis on the chorus, which take up most of the time of the songs. The rhythm section plays sexy-smooth-simple beats, but due to a very commonplace and intuitive use of song progression and crescendos, these beats cannot save the songs from becoming vapid and tiresome upon repeated plays.
It takes until the fourth track, Mary, until we finally start to feel like we are listening to something inventive. Mary’s beat is definitively “KOL’ish”, but not a repeat of something they have done before. The song progression is not instinctive and there is a nice infusion of a western sound, which is something somewhat novel for this band from Nashville. Also, there is a stellar (and rare) guitar solo, which really helps fill out the song. The other track in which a country sound is used well (more-so than just as an undertone) is in Back Down South, where a very simple fiddle interplay is used quite well. In all, it’s a very uncomplicated song, but interesting sonically.
Yet, there are only two other tracks that really offer anything captivating; the songs Pony Up, and Pickup Truck. The latter using a poppy but creative beat that finally abandons the pattern of making the majority of the song centered around the chorus, the former using some semblance of imaginative song progression, a solid chorus structure, and contains interesting sonics as well as lyrics. Besides these the rest of the tracks on this 13 song album just seem to reflect a band that wants to create songs that are radio/arena friendly, while simultaneously seeming to take a step in a different direction. Why they would incorporate a country sound only sparingly is puzzling, as well as why they would lean so heavily on sing-along-choruses and abandon their more aggressive-guitar-solo side (not the tactics that were partly why they become well-known).
Oddly enough a recent interview/article that Spin put out might help shed some light on this sense of musical confusion (read a highly abbreviated version of it here). In it the band talks about how they have gotten past the stage of being perpetually in the mode of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll”. How kids, marriage, and the wisdom of age have affected their lives and conversely their music. They explain how they don’t understand why there was so much backlash aimed towards them after their 4th album, ‘Only By The Night,’ propelled them to the status of world-stars. They state they are perplexed why others get upset at musicians trying to be successful in their caste, and why others comment on anything but musicians’ music. They say they don’t care what other people think.
But then they tell us that hipsters can “fuck off,” go out of their way to use drug metaphors to answer interview questions, insinuate that they can/will sleep with their hater’s girlfriends, and even offer a pretty substantial jab towards Arcade Fire’s live show (without using their name). Wait, do you guys care or not, are you grown up or not? And then there is the fact that they decide to record their first album containing a country feeling to it in New York City (having always recorded prior in Nashville).
There is a point in the article when they were (rightfully so) defending their departure from a show due to being repeatedly defecated on by pigeons when they say, “It’s not like we are Ozzy Osbourne. We are a pop band.” Wait; did they just use the 3-letter word to describe themselves? It’s not even pop/rock to you guys anymore?
What KOL doesn’t seem to understand is that it’s not becoming “popular music” that upsets their old followers (and music critics alike) – that is decided by being becoming publicly popular, a circumstance they have limited control of – but that it’s altering your music so as to become popular which comes off as the faux-pas (especially after you have already achieved super-star status and whatever you released will be listen to!). History is littered with people who created “pop” music, but never changed who they were musically, instead they changed the public’s concept of what popular music could be. That is what the “great ones” do. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Talking Heads, Nirvana, Tupac & Biggie, Radiohead – they altered peoples conceptions and expectations of popular music and hence will never be forgotten.
Then there is also the fact that being popular today just isn’t comprised of what it used to be. At a time when record sales and radio airplay don’t determine who is fashionable or who becomes the headlining act at a festival (a recent album in Australia went to no. 1 with 3,600 sales!), when albums are dropped by being streamed online and not released in a store, you don’t need to dumb down your music to have it reach the masses (let alone be liked by them).
If you are one of those who were drawn to KOL because of their magnificent first three albums and the great shows that happened in venues, and not arenas, then you will not like – or even recognize – this album (and not because the music is different, but because the soul, vibe and philosophy is different). If you are one who was introduced to KOL through the radio and ‘Only By The Night’, then you might appreciate and be drawn to this album (especially if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line), but it still will not probably excite you like “Only By The Night” did.
There is nothing wrong with being disoriented, or being in an in-between transitional period in your musical or real life, but then go ahead let that show in the music. ‘Come Around Sundown’ feels confused, but without self-awareness of the confusion. In that same interview KOL went on to say that they feel they haven’t written their “great songs” yet, the ones that will become timeless and be remembered throughout history. Unfortunately, with this album they haven’t created anything that will be remembered past this year.
Better luck next time boys, you have the talent and limelight to become a “great one”, but not with albums like this.