Kings of Leon
Because of the Times
o much for the sophomore slump; for the marquee rock aesthetes of the naughties, that albatross has become more a boon. Today, maturity, experience, and one-upmanship is funneled into the “difficult third album.” Take the Strokes’ Room on Fire and, to a lesser extent, Interpol’s Antics: both bettered their respective debuts through refining base formulas, stronger songwriting, and maintaining familiar production values. The Followill clan followed suit with Aha Shake Heartbreak, a record that whittled down their Southern influenced shotgun melodies and magnified them into crunchy, bite-sized pop songs with enough teeth and grit, or grit between their teeth, to propel them towards a corner of modern rock radio all their own—albeit one crammed with empty whisky bottles and high-school homecoming queens turned lot lizards.
But much like the Strokes’ horribly messy third act, the Kings of Leon have also chosen to wrestle jarringly with atmosphere and take their creative leaps blindfolded on Because of the Times, unintentionally mirroring how the band’s shallow well of ideas can’t be triplicate even when sown upon a more expansive palette.
Because of the Times validates the theory that the Kings of Leon are merely the Eagles in wolf’s clothing (or the Strokes in overalls), being that the album’s collection of tales, focusing solely on hard-living and harder women, are but hokey pulp fictions disguised with mellowed sincerity, played out on mythical dirt roads and overgrown farmhouses. Believing in the band’s evolution is even more a chore when singer Caleb Followill continues his ongoing quest to murder the English language with obfuscating bouts of hayseed diction. There are countless examples of improper pronouns, unnecessary “ain’t”’s and “a running”’s, and obligatory nods to the “lord” or his “soul” tacked onto every other line. If they wanted us to take them serious this time around, they’d at least try to be right honest about their ascent into minor celebrity and not keep on with the yokel façade. Without cautionary yarns regarding life on the tour bus or banging supermodels, the bright-eyed, legs-stretched mood of the music rings just as hollow.
That said, the album boasts some near-beautiful bookends. The seven-minute opener, “Knocked Up” (I’ll spare you the plot, but it ain’t Faulkner), soars headlong into Kings of Leon’s latest infatuation with U2’s crystalline and cinematic guitars. The Edge was never one to pick out a complex melody, dropping a few twinkling notes instead and letting his infinite array of echo pedals do most of the work. “Knocked Up” works on that same plane (as do the bulk of the guitar melodies). Though there’s the familiar tumbleweed of outlaw country rambling underneath, the song relies heavily on those similarly plucked sparkles for the duration, as if panning across an empty desert in the opening shot of some noir Western, stars from beyond blinking out a message in Morse code. “Arizona” likewise proves that if the band learned anything from their studio experiment, it was the effective use of space and bright sparse notes. All the trademarks of the Kings are here: the reverbed twang, the crying slide guitar, the uncharacteristic rubbery bassline bounces, but now they’re given room to breathe and covered in a gauze of cathedral keyboards and ethereal background noise reminiscient of My Morning Jacket’s concert hall enormity.
The filler in between sometimes reaches those peaks, “Black Thumbnail” is the best example of the Kings balancing their newly polished tricks with garage rock scuzz and “On Call” limps on a memorably breezy refrain, but the growing pains are evident. And, by the looks of it, puberty is a bitch. It’s a constant flux: the group either leans too much towards the cartoonish backwoods qualities that found them success in the first place or they hide their vapid songs with equally flat sonic baubles. At least Julian Casablancas had the gumption to admit he was left with “nothing to say.”