Kings of Leon started out a decade ago as scraping, scrapping Southern garage-rockers, but they found their voice as the great American arena band of their generation – grasping toward U2 levels of spacious grandeur on songs like their 2008 hit “Use Somebody.” Although their sixth album hardly feels like a comedown, or an apology, it’s loose and down-to-earth; you can imagine them bashing it out in a shed, albeit a very large one. “Rock City” suggests T. Rex going down to Muscle Shoals, with grotty-glam swivel and Caleb Followill “looking for drugs” while evocatively advertising his ability to “shake it like a woman.” It takes a true man to make that kind of boast.
The Kings fold lowdown, raucous moments into what’s become their trademark sonic and emotional expansiveness. The guitars on “Wait for Me” ripple like a desert oasis reflected in Bono‘s wraparounds, and the single “Supersoaker” is a sterling road-dog anthem with dogfighting guitars. The production (from longtime collaborator Angelo Petraglia) has modern sheen, yet the songs quake with soul, country and gospel history. Vocally, Followill’s gruff-mystic forebear is Gregg Allman. Personally, his self-aware manliness has a little Seventies Burt Reynolds in it, glinting at his own unimpeachable masculinity from a bemused remove. Over sky-blue guitar shimmer on “Comeback Story,” he sings with a wry sense of humor about trying to get back into a woman’s good graces: “I’d walk a mile in your shoes/Now I’m a mile away/And I’ve got your shoes.” Hollywood strings kick in as the song crescendos, but like so many of this band’s grand gestures, it doesn’t feel corny.