music review

Kings of Leon bemoan their rock stardom on latest album, 'Come Around Sundown'

Us, too: Kings of Leon (at the Patriot Center in April) reference Bono on
Us, too: Kings of Leon (at the Patriot Center in April) reference Bono on "Come Around Sundown." (Kyle Gustafson For The Washington Post)
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By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill faces an impossible 21st-century task: How can he be a rock star when rock stars no longer play rock-and-roll?

"Come Around Sundown," the band's fifth album, is thick with growly, momentous rock songs that arrive in an era dominated by magnificent pop stars (Lady Gaga), magniloquent rap stars (Lil Wayne) and mash-ups of the two (Kanye West).

Growly, momentous rock songs? That's the stuff of car commercials.

Which isn't to say that Followill and his kindred bandmates -- brother Jared on bass, brother Nathan on drums and cousin Matthew Followill on guitar -- haven't enjoyed a wildly successful ride. The band formed in Franklin, Tenn., in 1999 after the brothers spent their youths zigzagging the southern United States with their father, a Pentecostal preacher. With a handy creation myth firmly in place, they openly pantomimed the taut garage rock of the Strokes, deep-frying it in the Dixie-hued harmonies that they grew up with.

Earlier this year, the band's career reached a high point when its 2008 single, "Use Somebody," won a Grammy for record of the year, beating out a fearsome pop foursome of Taylor Swift, the Black Eyed Peas, Beyoncé and the mighty Gaga. Meanwhile, "Only by the Night," the album that spawned it, had gone platinum.

But on "Come Around Sundown" the boys appear to have grown wary of the uber-stardom that they've always courted. By turns dignified and desperate, the album finds them swinging a double-edged sword, with lyrics that second-guess fame and melodies that practically beg for it.

Nothing here eclipses the smoky pomp of "Use Somebody," or the band's brash, sorta-ridiculous 2008 single "Sex on Fire." But "Radioactive" comes close. As ever, the spotlight is on the sandpaper-voiced frontman. Vowels seem to swell deep in Caleb's throat, but he squeezes them through clenched teeth, as if bench-pressing cinder blocks in the vocal booth. "Just drink the water where you came from," he groans, nostalgic for a life before celebrity and expectations.

And while we drink that water, the band will have another round of Bono Kool-Aid. Along with Caleb's sentimental yowl, the Kings of Leon consistently define a chorus with ricocheting guitar riffs and reliable eighth-note bass lines -- all gleaned from the gospel according to U2. It cements the quartet as America's answer to Coldplay.

Ultimately, that's what makes Kings of Leon so inconsequential. Instead of blazing new trails -- something the band appears to have more than enough ambition to try -- it seems happy to follow an over-trodden path to the summit of rock-and-roll's Mount Olympus.

The Kings do, however, take an interesting sidestep along the way. "Mary" breaks the album's uniformity with scrappy, alterna-rock guitar scribbles and sweet, doo-woppish vocal flourishes. The song's dopey lyrics -- there's lots of dancing, kissing and crying -- come as a huge relief. The band sounds like it's finally having fun -- and that it's capable of conveying more than one tortured emotion.

But things go dour again with "The Immortals," a song rife with chiming guitars and smug self-importance. "The open road, the path of greatness/ It's at your fingers," Caleb sings to the unshaven hero in the mirror. "Go be the one that keeps on fighting/Go be the stranger." When he wisely (or accidentally) pokes a breather-hole in the song's bloated climax by letting out a simple "whoa!" of disbelief, it's a humanizing deadpan worthy of Keanu Reeves.

Despite all of the ponderous posturing on this album, there's still something incredibly alluring about the subtext: a band desperately searching for fame to the point of collapse. At times, you can almost hear Followill's insecurities poking through the heroic form that he often projects.

He lets it all hang out with "Mi Amigo," praising an unnamed, presumably uncontrolled substance that "tells me I look better." (There's a similar unprintable line about his manhood -- easily the most arresting rock lyric of 2010.) For four boogie-rocking minutes, the beleaguered singer recounts his bender while his bandmates deliver a blurry stomp that throbs like a Sunday morning hangover.

Never have Kings of Leon sounded more defeated. Or more sincere. It's the most engaging moment on a record with far too few.

Recommended tracks:

"Mary," "Mi Amigo"

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