After a five-year hiatus since their last album WALLS, southern rockers Kings of Leon are back with a pensive new album that's the band's most subtle and experimental yet.
Formed back in 1999, the Followill brothers (and one cousin) have been around the block more than a few times, and their sound has evolved steadily through the years. In their earlier days, they were hailed as the "Southern Strokes" for their southern-tinged garage rock, but the title was dropped as the band proved to be more explorative with their sound. Their earlier albums built them a large following in the UK, but it wasn’t until the massive singles from 2008's Only By the Night that they became a household name in America. "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" showcased King of Leon's ability to write derivative, yet stadium-filling hooks, which evidently made the band uneasy. Their follow-up album Come Around Sundown, saw them rebuke their superstardom and distance themselves from the radio-friendly. Since then, they've refused to stick to one thing, jumping around various sounds to a fault. However, it appears they’ve done something quite clever this time.
Matching its title, the atmosphere of the band's latest effort When You See Yourself is mature and reflective. The bass-heavy backdrops and spacy guitars combined with the vintage synths and introspective lyrics capture a certain melancholy that can only be described as the feeling you’d get walking alone down a beach on a cloudy day. The band distancing themselves from their signature arena rock sound allows for some interesting song structures, though on a few occasions, the payoff at the end of the slowburn isn’t as rewarding as you’d hope.
The opener "When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away?" introduces the mood of the album with its prominent bass and rhythmic shaker in the verse, dropping off to a synth-led and stripped-back chorus. The lyrics are packed with vague clichés about the passing of time, which are unfortunately indicative of the lyrics on most of the album, but luckily, there are more interesting things to focus on. The outro pulls the song in a new and hypnotic direction as frontman Caleb Followill’s distant vocals ask a myriad of obscure questions, including the one in the song title over a cyclical guitar line. "The Bandit" is a nice contrast as it picks up the pace with its batch of fuzzy guitars and pounding rhythm. The lyrics in the verses paint apocalyptic images of "the red horse" from the Book of Revelation and "hopes... turn[ing] into fears." The vocals on this track stand out more against the instrumentation than a lot of songs on the album, where Caleb Followill's voice gets lost in the mix. As the lead single, "The Bandit" has one of the catchiest hooks and fastest tempos on the record, but it still has that twinge of sorrow that carries through the tracklist.
The highlight "A Wave" starts with distorted vocals that sit on top of a mellow piano and undercurrent of synths, but then kicks off into a surf-rock groove. The band have admitted they struggled with the direction of this song for a while before the final product, which they are most proud of. Jared Followill's bass shines through again as the star of the show along with ripples of sci-fi synth lines. Though the lyrics contain the same sort of ambiguous time references as the entire album and the same coastal imagery as tracks like "Supermarket" and "Echoing," for some reason, they work best in the context of "A Wave." "Golden Restless Age" keeps the momentum with its slashing riff. Lyrically and melodically, the chorus isn't anything to write home about, but the layers of instruments under the vocals are quite nice, especially the arpeggio guitars and (yet again) the waves of synths. Another memorable track comes on the back end of the LP with "Claire and Eddie." The track's warm acoustic guitar and romantic melody create a nice moment of levity with lyrics illustrating scenes of nature and serenity. Caleb's Followill's unique falsetto carries the song's structure where some of the strongest lines of the record lie—"Fire’s gonna rage if people don’t change" and "I’m chemically inclined to say what’s on my mind." According to the band, it’s a love song from humanity to earth. A psychedelic guitar floats through the song and into a reverb-drenched solo over that acoustic strumming, soft drums, and a bed of, you guessed it, synths. The album closes with the ethereal and structureless "Fairytale," which includes a tasteful string section and another impressive bassline. A few other high points of the record besides the ones I mentioned above are the emotional outro of "100,000 People," the climactic chorus of "Time in Disguise" and the Caribbean-style percussion on "Supermarket."
The album’s sound is cohesive to the point where it becomes slightly repetitive at times, especially with the similar guitar tones and plethora of steady and groovy basslines. However, and I might’ve mentioned this before, the synthesizers throughout the album add so much depth to the soundscapes, giving a sophisticated quality to the album. Nathan Followill’s drum performance deserves to be noted too. Overall, When You See Yourself is a pleasant listen if you’re in the right mood for it. It’s not the kind of album you would occasionally revisit or scream along to out of a car window, but if it’s late at night and you’re feeling thoughtful, you’d get quite a bit of enjoyment out of it.
Highlights — "A Wave," "Claire & Eddie" & "Golden Restless Age"
When You See Yourself is available now. Stream the new album below.