In the run-up to Kings of Leon’s fifth album, frontman Caleb Followill fretted publicly over his band’s swelling popularity. Sorry, dude: That horse left the barn a while ago. The Kings’ last album, 2008’s Only by the Night, sold 6.5 million copies worldwide, they now headline arenas all over, and the Grammy-grabbing “Use Somebody” has been covered by everyone from Paramore to Trey Songz. If Wilco and My Morning Jacket are vying for the title of America’s Radiohead, Kings of Leon have — Bono’s honorary green card notwithstanding — become our U2. And the gigantic-sounding Come Around Sundown suggests that, Caleb’s humble grumblings aside, they are thriving on it.
Listen to “The Face,” a slow-fuse power ballad that conjures a stadium full of singing fans and slow-turning mirror balls. Or “The End,” where the band’s once lean and scrappy guitar sound becomes an Edge-like tsunami. But the Kings’ personality hasn’t been lost in the supersizing — the group manages to tweak its sound several times over. The fiddle-spiked “Back Down South” heads into dark backwoods-kegger territory. “Mary” flirts with doo-wop, mating pop falsettos with Matthew Followill’s punk-glam rawk riffing. “Pony Up” is an itchy funk tune that surprisingly recalls Talking Heads.
Caleb’s voice, meanwhile, remains a thing of slithering, boozy Tennessee beauty. Witness “Birthday.” It’s a slinky rocker in the spirit of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” except there’s no club, shawty’s nose is bloodied, and Caleb is walking her home, stumbling, laughing and spilling drinks along the way. Down-homey and over-the-top, “Birthday” recalls the Kings’ gruff-sounding garage-rock days. But it’s just a glimpse in the rearview by a band with its foot on the accelerator.