Thursday, October 20, 2016

album review: 'WALLS' by kings of leon

There's a reason I wanted to do the Blackberry Smoke review before Kings Of Leon. Mostly as an active disclaimer for those who'll say I can't like or appreciate southern or alternative rock because I'm not a Kings Of Leon fan, whereas the reality with Blackberry Smoke is that they transcended the worst tropes of the genre while embracing the best.

Whereas Kings Of Leon is one of those bands that seems to have gotten a pass from the mainstream public for entirely too long for one good song, that being 'Use Somebody'. And yeah, 'Use Somebody' is a good track, but I've now listened to the entire Kings Of Leon discography and trust me when I say they don't have many more. Part of this is because they tend to fall into the bad side of southern rock tropes when it comes to the writing - namely the majority of songs they've ever written about women - and yet don't play this sleaze with the swagger or bravado or even a sense of humor to even make that tolerable. That's part of the larger problem with Kings Of Leon in that they don't really have a distinct identity or intensity as a band - they aren't grounded in roots rock or country enough to completely embrace the southern rock label, they aren't rough-edged enough for punk or hard rock, and I was never impressed by their guitarwork enough to put them up with the anthemic strains of arena rock like U2. Combine that with vocals that could be very hit-and-miss, especially on their earlier albums, their complete sincerity which made their lyrics seem at best tonally inconsistent and at worst horribly self-obsessed, and their bizarre inability to end a lot of their songs properly, and you find a rock band that's too watered down for me to really care about.

Now to be a little fair, there are ingredients of a good group here, especially in the basslines and some of the fast-paced blurry guitar tones, and their 2013 album Mechanical Bull wasn't bad, mostly courtesy of some tighter melodies and a slightly better grasp of melodic songwriting, but a lot of people I otherwise respect were giving their newest album WALLS a fair amount of praise. And while I didn't have high expectations... hey, it couldn't be that bad, right?

Well yeah, it's not bad... but it's also not good either. In fact, I'm having a hard time describing what this record is at all, because I got little if anything from WALLS by Kings Of Leon. For as many times as I listened through it, this record feels like a blur to me - none of the recognizable bite or texture that saved Mechanical Bull, no performances that felt fiery or explosive, and lyrics that couldn't coalesce into a coherent theme beyond Kings Of Leon standards even if they tried. I'd call this formless and generic, but the better words are 'aimless' and 'lost', a record from a band so deeply and seriously committed to a path that seems to lead nowhere, and I only have so much patience for the journey.

So let's start with the biggest issue right out of the gate, the production. For the first time in their careers Kings Of Leon have made a record without Angelo Petraglia, instead opting for Markus Dravs, who is most well-known for his work with Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, and most recently the last Florence + The Machine record. And with that choice comes a complete absence of any electric guitar bite or firepower - dragged into smooth, liquid tones that might carry melody but have no real body to support them, leaving the bass guitar to carry that weight. And sure, that means a greater focus on the bass grooves, which have been a consistent strength for Kings Of Leon in the past, but when you then sink most of the drums in the same blur, it doesn't make for a mix with that much punch, even on the songs with more wiry melody. And when you throw on layers of flat, buzzy synths to further mute the impact, I'm left without a lot of interesting texture or explosive hooks to rely on, and for a band trying to be as anthemic as Kings Of Leon are, that's a huge misstep. And keep in mind Kings Of Leon aren't a band that'll break into a huge impressive solo to showcase flair or style, which means that whenever we get an instrumental interlude, it doesn't evolve or change or go off in a direction that's weird or interesting. And that's not even counting the hooks that have potential and yet just don't explode out of the blurry mess with real impact - 'Waste A Moment', 'Conversation Piece' - or the songs where the melodic balance on the hook is just skewed to neuter possible impact, like that oscillating guitar piece on 'Reverend' or the shrill pileup of tones on 'Wild' that can't remotely live up to a decent guitar flourish at its core, especially on the hook. Now that's not saying the band doesn't experiment a bit, but most of them are a misfire - 'Around The World' tries to go for some indie rock-inspired bounce off the prominent bass and main guitar loop that drops into down into a more conventional blurry hook that doesn't really flatter the verses before fading in and out of reverb. Then there's 'Muchacho' with its drippy beat, liquid guitar and bass, acoustic groove, and a stab at Spanish tones with the percussion that feels way too soggy and limp to remotely work.

And that's also not saying there aren't hooks that work here either - 'Find Me' is probably the best of them, and 'Over' fares well with the grinding post-punk bassline and bleak tones, almost like a mainstream version of a Preoccupations song at least until the acoustic guitar comes in. But then we have our frontman Caleb Followill... and I'm still divided on this guy. On the one hand, he can be an emotive and powerful singer on songs like the title track, but I can't be the only one who feels he toned back his delivery to match the more liquid tones across this album, because he's nowhere near as passionate or raw as he's been in the past. I don't doubt that he's trying, but this is where Dravs' production really does him a disservice - placing the main vocal line midway into the mix, it leaves him stuck competing with an blend of synth and guitar at his volume and a louder rhythm guitar, and again, this doesn't help this record pick up any sort of soaring or anthemic presence, even if his backing vocals sound pretty good.

Of course, the more I went through the lyrics of this album the more I questioned whether these songs were worthy of anthems to begin with, mostly because of a real lack of payoff or defining detail. It's not saying there isn't detail, but it's peripheral and doesn't really inform the songs beyond trying to add texture to mixes that don't have any. 'Waste A Moment' is a prime example: the girl is your stereotypical hellraiser that populates a Kings Of Leon song, her boyfriend is an outlaw, but beyond just setting up these characters the song tells no story or implies any sort of motivation - all planting, no payoff. 'Conversation Piece' is your love-hate anthem to L.A., but the 'conversation piece' line of the hook for this unspecified person feels disconnected, unless that conversation is about how much L.A. sucks. 'Wild' goes even more abstract, but aside from not remotely living up to its title instrumentally, there's no core to the emotional dynamic of the track. 'Muchacho' at least feels authentic in its tribute to a friend, even if I'd definitely question placing it after 'Over', a song about committing suicide that has some punch even when you realize Young The Giant did this better with 'Cough Syrup' five years ago. Then there's 'Reverend', a song that is trying to be a tribute to country artist Blaze Foley... at least for the first verse, before the second seems to focus on the slippery nature of what he sang about - which of course is characterized as feminine - and how it meant so much to our singer. And sure, that could drive an interesting song if we got hints of what that truth actually was or deeper references to Foley's music, but their stubborn insistence in keeping things oblique makes it come across as all the more navel-gazing. And that doesn't surprise me: between that and the music about all sorts of mysterious female figures like on 'Find Me' and 'All Around The World' or the wild hookup of 'Eyes On You' that at least feels honest until you get lines like 'if you don't like it then try it' or the implications he's trying to drive whatever ex is still lurking out of her mind with her 'back in his knife', which just is sloppily written. And then you get the sour lyrics of the breakup on the title track like 'I could never point you out / waste of space in a faceless crowd' or 'western girl with eastern eyes' or the phony self-deprecation of 'oh a man ain't a man 'less he has desire' - with all of this, we're very much in standard Kings Of Leon territory. And in a sense that's a problem - I get going back to the well, but we're seven albums in and I'm not seeing evidence of growth or evolution in the writing to drive to stronger points that could anchor the swell of these songs. 

But at the end of the day, I can't get all that mad at this record, or feel much of anything beyond mild annoyance that for some reason this'll get play on modern rock radio in comparison with more interesting bands. Again, it's not a bad record - there are a few good grooves and the hooks could have been something if the production didn't squander them - but if you're going to shamelessly milk a barely southern fusion of Interpol and U2, at least make those anthems be about something more real to match the earnestness. I'd say the lyrics soured on me the most, but that would imply I felt anything about this record beyond just overmixed, tepid boredom. So for me, it's a light 5/10 and I can't really recommend this. Maybe if you're a hardcore fan, but even then there's enough of a production shift that I can see fans of Mechanical Bull being a little alienated. More than ever, if one of the main standard bearer's for modern rock radio is Kings Of Leon, I can't say that's a good sign, especially going forward.

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