Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill is an arena-rock idealist, a firm believer in the undying power of setting up shop at the 50-yard line of rock & roll expectations and doing very brisk business. “Like in a mainstream melody / Oh, I want to take you in!” he told us on the Kings’ last album, 2016’s Walls, a subtle come-on that was a pretty fair assessment of why his band’s music hit home with millions.
So, what do these Tennessee titans do in times like these, when there aren’t any arenas to be rocked? In some ways, the band’s eighth album is an arena rock of the mind, tempering the strapping anthemics of hits like “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” for songs that stretch out en route to arriving at a serene kind of swagger.
Followill, brothers Nathan and Jared, and cousin Matthew are still as sexily en fuego as ever. The lead single, “Bandit,” lunges and soars with rippling guitar leads cascading across some of the dirtiest riffs the band has put on a record since the New South-meets-neo-Strokes garage moves of its first two albums, Youth & Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, in the early 2000s. “Golden Restless Age” is low-slung and sleek, piling on slashing, intersecting guitars before lifting off into a golden restless chorus. And the crosscutting punk riffs on “Echoing” are downright violent.
But if you’re looking for the woo-woo payoffs the Kings do so well, this record might surprise you. Even at their most sweeping, these songs brood and meander a bit, often in interesting directions. Album opener “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away” is all tension and no release, its gorgeous guitar arpeggios and martial groove leading to the epiphany: “The pleasures of this life I’m told, will spit you out in the middle of the road.” On “100,000 People,” Followill sings about love as a defense against today’s bleakness over a slow, soft-focused track that suggests a tough, Southern-steeped Coldplay. With its tight soul bass line, “Stormy Weather” feels like it might turn into a manly soul stomp, but instead, it pensively shimmies into the middle distance as Followill plays the love man in distress.
Throughout, producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Mumford & Sons) gives everything a graceful sheen, whether on the soft-rock romance “Claire & Eddie” or the moody “Supermarket,” with its molten goth bass line and lyrics that start as an invite to chill and end as a dream of getting clean and “whole again.”
Turns out these guys can revel in ambiguity just as fully as they once reveled in their youth and young manhood.