Kings of Leon rolled along with the guitar rock revival of the early 2000s with their good looks, chugging riffs and swoon-worthy swagger. But it was the little things that set them apart from New York counterparts like The Strokes or Interpol: the family vibe within the band, the aching soulful voice of frontman Caleb Followill, and the atmosphere they brought to the table. While other bands experimented with synthesizers, expanded jams, or just planted their feet firmly in their art rock influences, the Kings expanded the sonics of their guitars and rhythm to make songs that stayed closed to their hipster sinner appeal but could be played on the same stages that U2 fronts.
That’s what made 2008’s Only by the Night go double platinum and turned the Followill boys into mainstream rock stars, and yet that’s the farthest the boys ever got. Their last two records (Come Around Sundown, Mechanical Bull) were KOL on reset mode, going back to the simple chugging riffs with only occasionally flourishes of their peak. Like The Strokes, I couldn’t help but worry that they boys were out of new things to offer.
Walls is album no. 7 for the band and, despite what the wannabe-Storm Thorgerson album cover and new producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons) might lead you to believe, there isn’t anything strange or new this time around. It’s business as usual for the boys: rocking riffs, Caleb’s howling voice, the tight rhythm section of Nathan and Jared Followill, etc. But true to KOF form, it’s the minor differences that stand out. At 47 minutes and 10 tracks, it’s the band’s shortest album to date with some of their fastest songs. Lead single and album opener “Waste a Moment” does not live up to the song title speeding through its three-minute length. Half of the songs are under four minutes with only two tracks passing the five-minute mark. One of them, “Over,” still manages to have a strong propulsion to it despite being over six minutes long. The whole album charges ahead like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in their heyday, even with guitar strings plucked like Peter Buck of R.E.M. is sitting in on a session. Tracks like “Eyes on You” and “Around the World” are prime for dancing and the ballad “Conversation Piece” is surely to have lighters in the air at stadium shows. A few tracks often fade into the following songs, showing a sign of the band capturing an energy and actually wanting to stick with it.
It may be shocking to learn, but the Followill boys are actually getting older (all four are in their mid to late 30s) and the lyrics of Walls reflect that. “Waste a Moment” is about grabbing life by the horns and “Around the World” has the boys reflecting on their near-15 year fun ride (“Been around the world been around the world/I stormed the gates in laden pearl/All around the world all around the world/I lost myself and found a girl”). “Find Me” features Caleb singing about being chased by something in the sky and in the shadows. Is he talking about love, age, relevancy, or all three? He doesn’t say specifically, but he sounds enthused about it. The title track closes the album on a somber note (“You tore out my heart/You threw it away/The western girl with Eastern eyes/Took a wrong turn and found surprise awaits/Now there’s nothing in the way”). The “walls” being referenced seem to be those of the boundaries of youthful spirit. Older and with a bit more miles on them, Kings of Leon are seemingly ready to take on whatever is coming to them.
Maybe that’s the point of Walls. No grand statement or desperate plea for glory days, just the band pressing on in the face of uncertainty. Walls is Kings of Leon being Kings of Leon and while it’s a bit disappointing to see them not try something bold, at least they’re not sacrificing their sound to press on. Walls is a basic modern rock record, but its elements still work. Kings of Leon still sound like they care enough to make good music, like they’re still just getting warmed up.