Kings of Leon – Because of the Times
Record Label – Hand Me Down
Release Date – 2 April 2007
The Kings of Leon have been successfully blending elements of folk (unrefined vocals, meandering melodies, spare instrumentation) and Southern rock (rambling percussion, lyrics about girls and cars) for several years now, resulting in the retro sound that defines the band. Their latest offering, Because of the Times, is another step down this same road, yet with a decidedly more mature, complex stride. The Followill boys (brothers Caleb, Nathan, and Jared, along with cousin Matthew) are expanding their repertoire here—musically, at least.
The album’s opener, “Knocked Up,” is a seven-minute white-trash epic about star-crossed lovers with a bun in the oven. Featuring a bass line that flows steady like the Mississippi and building from subdued to riotous, the track effectively set the tone for the journey to come. Caleb’s lyrics are both juvenile and heartfelt as he wails, “I don’t care what nobody says / We’re gonna have a baby.”
The next track, “Charmer,” throttles the listener with a roiling bass line that rolls into a punkish riff as Caleb punctuates the whole thing with a screech that’s abrasive at first but seems perfectly in place by the end of the song. The album’s first single, “On Call” is another track with a kick, provided courtesy of yet another Jared Followill bass line. “McFearless” rounds out an excellent opening stanza as the band plays around a bit with post-rock aesthetics—and rather successfully, thanks to Matthew’s ambitious riffs.
“Black Thumbnail” surges like a (fellow retro-rockers) Wolfmother track, following in the theme of harder tracks that dominate the first half of the album. The aggressive “My Party” continues with this theme, kicking in with a bass line that sounds eerily reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” albeit disguised by Caleb’s muffled wailings and more soaring Matthew riffs.
The album slows down considerably with “True Love Way,” a snoozer with saccharine lyrics (although it does contain one of the album’s better solos near the end). “Ragoo”, “Fans,” “The Runner,” and “Trunk” complete a rather unsatisfying middle of the record. “Ragoo” is a decent, if unspectacular, ditty about the band looking back from whence they came. “Fans” is another too-aptly named track about (and tribute to), you guessed it, the band’s devotees—although Caleb does eventually turn it back to himself, “The King they want to see.” The latter two tracks zoom by like an empty stretch of Tennessee freeway: not unpleasantly, but ultimately forgettable.
Fortunately, the album wraps up strongly with “Camaro” and “Arizona.” “Camaro,” which combines Caleb’s two great lyrical loves—girls and cars—nevertheless sees the band come together musically like no other track on the record. Matthew blazes through chords while Jared and Nathan provide strong rhythms. Definitely one of the highlights of the record. “Arizona” caps the album similarly to how it began: slow, smooth, and sad. The bass lulls the listener into reverie, while the atmospheric riffs bring them back as Caleb wistfully croons.
Ultimately, Caleb’s delightfully unrefined vocals are the perfect compliment to his siblings’ (and cousin’s) masterful musicianship. Throughout the record, the bass lines thump, the drums kick, and the guitars shred. The tracks roll by, atmospheric dirges and balls-out rockers both—the band runs the gamut. The production is perfectly subtle, allowing the band to showcase their talents without going over the top.
Lyrically, however, is where the band stumbles. Caleb Followill comes back to the same two themes on basically every track on the album: girls (especially ones that have done wrong) and life on the road. These themes are tired by now, especially for a band that draws so heavily on the Southern rock tradition. And while Caleb’s vocals can, at times, recall, say, Neil Young and that ilk, the songs here have none of the sociopolitical flair that is so inherent in this type of folksy, rootsy rock. While I’m not asking for an out-and-out political album, a little weightier subject matter would be well-used, especially considering the album’s title—Because of the Times.
Regardless, many of the songs on the album are the kind of timeless, unpretentious tracks that are almost impossible to hear on the radio or MTV nowadays. The songs all seem to unfold at their own pace; there is no rush to get to that catchy chorus or knockout riff—yet you are infinitely grateful when you do get there. On Because of the Times, the band proves that, fittingly, sometimes the journey is just as good as the destination. And, for that, the Followill boys have earned themselves the title of “Kings.”