Arts and Entertainment

Kings of Leon: The Best Contemporary Rock Band?

Kings of Leon has come a long way from their Southern roots, but even after global smash hits, they're still the same thing they always were—an excellent rock & roll band.

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The past year has been, needless to say, mentally and emotionally strenuous for us all. We've had to learn to live apart while still trying to maintain connections. We've had to rethink everything about how we live and how the world works and grow our social consciousness. But most importantly, we've had to seriously examine the state of the world and the way it's ended up. It's important to work, but it's not easy, and sometimes we need a break. But we don't just need a little rest and relaxation, a short break where we can sit around worrying about the future—we need rock & roll. We need some roaring guitars, some folksy singing, a driving bass—some good, soul-affirming music. We need Kings of Leon.

But why Kings of Leon in particular? What sets them apart from the countless other bands representing the slowly dying genre of rock & roll? Maybe it starts with their origin story: three brothers traveling with their Evangelical Preacher father, traversing the South to save people's souls. Or maybe it’s because of their first album, written largely in their parents’ basement while they were on the cusp of adulthood, and their ensuing fame—not in their country of origin but in the United Kingdom as they were hailed as one of the most promising bands of the twentieth century. Or, it could be because of their transition into the global pop world, with their 2008 smash singles “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.”

How did a garage rock band from Tennessee reach almost the same level as the modern pop-rock giant Coldplay, and why would they still be relevant today? Kings of Leon makes a kind of rock music that other genres can't hope to match in its emotional expression and genuine relatable feeling: the power of a person playing a real instrument and singing in their own voice. Kings of Leon makes the kind of music you can sing along to without having ever having heard it before, musical compositions not just catchy as the latest top 40 earworms, but perfectly constructed to capture the most relatable human emotions. “When You See Yourself” (2021) is their eighth and most recent album, and though the members are middle-aged, they haven't slipped in talent whatsoever.

Their last album, “WALLS” (2016), saw them honing what had become their signature arena rock sound, but on “When You See Yourself,” they transcend it. Make no mistake, this is still music that will capture an audience of thousands of screaming fans, but the very danceable tracks, with deep syncopated bass throbbing under languid tears of lead guitar, and a snarling, muscular rhythm guitar offer much more than a pop sensibility. The lead singer Caleb Followill's soulful (and still fairly southern) voice—singing classic themes of love, loss, and Americana—mixes naturally with the well-crafted and expertly played instrumentation. There's no overproduction to make the guitars just ornaments around the singer’s voice. Rather, the arrangement closely approximates the feeling of being with the band, their songs coming straight from the heart. While they do continue a style of riff-centric pop-rock popularized by the likes of The Strokes and Coldplay in the early 2000s, none of their songs ever feel stale. Every single one is still based around guitar, bass, and drums, and you continue to hear the signature drive of the bass, the lazy sweep of the electric guitars, and reverb-heavy, compressed laments of the singer on songs like “Stormy Weather,” which is followed by the wellspring of sound and harmony that consolidates into the powerful ripping chords of “Golden Restless Age.”

It's no wonder that “The Bandit” was the lead single for this album, with the wailing guitar rising and falling over the constant, loping pace of the bass, and the straining tones of the frontman's narrative. He sings the quintessential American story of the lawman trying to catch not just a man, but the entire spirit of a nation, an energy that can never be tamed, always moving forward without thought of the past, only the future. Why should we care about this type of music anymore? Why should we listen to a genre that arguably had its last gasp with ’90s grunge? What more can be accomplished beyond that? This is not just the music of a few middle-aged men from the deep south playing five-minute songs when our greatest contemporary hits barely get past two. This is not just the music of white people stuck in the past. This is the music made on the guitars originally carried by those Latinos who inhabited the Wild West, the style popularized by the African American Blues singers continuing a tradition that followed their ancestors, the style then appropriated by white people and spread over the world. There is no hat in this music, no bigotry—only the purest consolidation of our land's shared musical heritage and the purest expressions of human emotion. This is the music of the people; this is the sound of America.