Kings of Leon has broken its three-year hiatus with its seventh studio album, “WALLS,” released Oct. 14. With the new album, the Nashville rock band follows the recent ’80s revival trend in pop music, with pop megastars like Taylor Swift and alternative rockers like The 1975 alike embracing lush synth tones.
The band, composed of brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill and their cousin Matthew Followill, approaches this trend without abandoning its rock credentials. Unfortunately, the final product is underwhelming. With a few exceptions, the album relies too heavily on “whoa-oh” choruses and guitar-dominated melodies, and is now too slick and over-produced to have any of the rough, Southern charm that made listeners fall in love with Kings of Leon.
The album’s title is an acronym for “We Are Like Love Songs.” For an album that claims to be about romance, love songs are noticeably absent from “WALLS.” Most tracks instead focus on inner demons: a brush with drug abuse on “Around the World,” a fear of abandonment on “Over” and a reflection on the death of a friend on “Muchacho.”
Even so, love songs have always been the band’s forte. The band sprung to fame in 2008 with two career-altering songs: “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire.” Both were more about melancholy and desire than celebration or romance. The former, for instance, is about trying to find a replacement for a former lover – hardly the subject matter of a typical love song.
Caleb Followill, whose raspy and soulful voice is well-suited for these kinds of yearning tracks, sticks to his trademark sound on “WALLS.” The big difference on the album is that the songs themselves do not feel nearly as engaging as prior releases. Most tracks on “WALLS” sound like songs from former albums, and none have the stadium-filling appeal or the timeless anthemic quality of “Use Somebody.”
However, the album does present a certain emotional maturity. The album’s eponymous track is stripped down and undoubtedly its strongest. Followill repeats the refrain, “and the walls come down,” with mounting conviction to a heart-wrenching crescendo that concludes the album. Featuring the bluesy-rock sensibility characteristic of John Mayer, the song manages to have a heartfelt message about being let down at the most vulnerable moment. The downplayed moments, as in the Latin-inspired “Muchacho” and the muted, slow “Conversation Piece,” somewhat redeem the album.
This slick, electronic and guitar-dominated incarnation of the band is likely to be temporary. Over the course of eight years on the music scene, the group has visited genres from country-folk and blues to indie and stadium rock. As a band that did not rely on the internet or social media to rise to fame and has been able to maintain a consistent fan base through its various reinventions, Kings of Leon should be applauded. The latest album is no exception. Kings of Leon can still write a great rock chorus, like that of “Eyes on You,” and manage to retain its signature tone while following the vogue ’80s stylistic trend.
Unfortunately for fans of the group’s prior work, the album sounds like the group has sacrificed quality, with most songs seeming second-rate. The larger problem is less apparent. Kings of Leon originally had a special kind of appeal as a group of young, talented and anarchic brothers who used to cancel concerts due to pre-show arguments and sing explicit lyrics about reaping the benefits of being an up-and-coming rock artist. That same appeal is lost for a band of mature 30-somethings who have settled down as an established name in the mainstream music industry.
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