“We know a lot of people would love us to come out with long hair and moustaches, to be the guys from ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ again, but we’re a different band now,” Caleb Followill told NME in this week’s cover story. Let that be a warning to you from the Kings Of Leon frontman: Nashville’s most notorious family of rockers is back – more confident and comfortable than ever – but perhaps not in the exact way you might hope. And that’s no bad thing.
‘When You See Yourself’ sees the Kings marry their interests old and new, finally embracing the mature, laid-back versions of themselves. As Caleb says, the pouty bad boys of yesteryear are long gone. It makes sense when you consider the band’s chronology: it was with their fourth album, the moody ‘Only By The Night’, that things skyrocketed for Kings Of Leon, with ubiquitous hits ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ finally connecting with fans in the US. Now, with record number eight, they’ve bottled everything learned on the road in the three (slightly more underwhelming) albums since, while still reconnecting with the best parts of what made the world love these boisterous, unruly rockers in the first place.
Lead single ‘The Bandit’ channels the playful energy of KOL all-timers ‘The Bucket’ and ‘King of the Rodeo’, with its earworm riff and vivid lyrics reminding us that storytelling, daydreaming about cowboys and reckless adventures has always been what the Followills do best. It’s clever to introduce the new album to the world with this crowd-pleasing track, while more vulnerable ballads and lucid battlecries patiently wait in the wings.
There are meditations on growing older (the wistful ‘Fairytale’) and statements on climate change (‘Claire And Eddie’), interspersed with love letters to quiet, domestic romance. “One more night, one more night will you stay here,” Caleb sings on the album’s title track, urging for the world to slow down for just a moment – it’s surprising, refreshing even, from the frontman of what used to be the quintessential party band.
Kings Of Leon spend the whole album toying with what fans might expect – and clearly have great fun doing so. Take the funk-inflected bassline of ‘Stormy Weather’, or the seductive, nostalgic lyrics of ‘Golden Restless Age’, which muse on youth: “You’re only passing through a form of you / I look in your eyes and there’s a rage”.
The dominant feeling on ‘When You See Yourself’ is one of introspective contemplation. ‘Supermarket’, first introduced to via Instagram as an acoustic ballad called ‘Going Nowhere’ last March, reworks demos dating back to 2008 and speaks of “going nowhere”, but, most importantly, being someone who will “never be whole again / Until I get clean”.
Confessions of past errors and the dissection of situations that just aren’t fun anymore earn the album a wisdom, where Kings Of Leon of the past might have preferred some kind of confrontation. “Is this the world I belong to / Or just a shade of light?” Caleb asks on ‘Time in Disguise’, reckoning with his life lived under the spotlight for so long.
Yet there are plenty of high-energy bursts of light you can already see bringing a crowd to life, too. ‘Echoing’ has the giddy adrenaline of the band’s electric first two albums, the aforementioned ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ (2003) and ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ (2004). And ‘A Wave’ shifts from mournful keys to dynamic, almost jubilant riffs as the frontman confess a yearning to cleanse himself: “Oh, wave crash down on me / Until I’m whole again.”
Somewhere between wisdom and adrenaline, the best track on ‘When You See Yourself’ finds Kings Of Leon at their most romantic. “I’ll love you ’til the day is gone” Caleb sings on ‘Fairytale’ – the frontman is married to model Lily Aldridge, with whom he has two children. His brothers Nathan and Jared and cousin Matthew are all husbands and dads too; there is a sense of unified, level-headed gratitude to live – at long last – a quiet life. The violins soar, Caleb’s voice whispers and reverberates, and you finally get a sense of what pure happiness sounds like.
Throughout ‘When You See Yourself’, the frontman strains his voice less than on past records – which would sometimes muddle lyrics, but cut through any instrument with prickly tension – though it’s still incomparable: tender and filled with tragedy one moment, electric and fearless the next. We’re unlikely to be totally rid of guitars on a Kings Of Leon album any time soon, but there are more daring rhythms and more sophisticated production here. It might be thanks to the band’s super-producer Markus Dravs, returning for a second record after ‘WALLS’, but importantly it’s perhaps a result of Kings Of Leon being more curious and energised in themselves.
If there was a hump between 2011’s dreary ‘Come Around Sundown’ and 2016’s poppy ‘WALLS’, they’re long past it now. We’ll be seeing the Kings for a long time to come – and if every next album is like this one, that’s a cause for celebration.
Release date: March 5
Record label: RCA