Even a meat-and-potatoes rock band like Kings of Leon recognizes that, in 2016, the conventional album rollout is a bad move. If you’re at a certain level of superstardom, it benefits you to either drop your record unexpectedly or get all extracurricular with its promotion. Many artists do both. While the Kings probably won’t be releasing a short film or, as frontman Caleb Followill stated in a recent Billboard profile, going “full Drake” anytime soon, they’ve at least gotten a touch more avant-garde with the PR for their latest album, WALLS.
There’s the head-scratching acronym of the title (it stands for “We Are Like Love Songs”), an artsy, admittedly batshit music video for “Waste a Moment”, and — most telling of all — the artwork. At its core, it’s just a photo of each band member peering up from a pool of liquid. But look closer and there’s a deliberate weirdness at work: doll-head replicants instead of the band’s actual faces, fluid that’s the same shade and consistency of the photon milk in Minority Report. And are those women’s eyelashes? Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever the case, the fact that we’re debating its meaning automatically puts it in a different class than the postcard on Come Around Sundown and the neon road sign of Mechanical Bull.
As NME pointed out, though, the art could also be an homage to The Byrds’ Byrdmaniax, an album that’s far more straightforward than the uncanny valley that those faces would suggest. And maybe that’s the point, because, musically, WALLS isn’t some adventurous left turn towards krautrock or no wave. Rather, it’s KOL’s most unified, solid, and direct album since Aha Shake Heartbreak, its arc owing to time-tested AOR more than anything else. It starts with one of the fastest songs (the lead single, no less), peaks with the jangly mid-album cut “Eyes On You”, and closes with the title track, its only proper ballad.
A handful of oddball flourishes pepper the classic rock arc — most notably the funk-lite clavinet on “Around the World” and the Latin-tinged percussion of “Muchacho” — but the members of the Followill clan also never feel like they’re trying too hard. By the time the white noise in the background of “WALLS” mutates into can-opener distortion, the experimentation is well-earned by how comfortable they are with each other on the rest of the record. The sonic diversions — subtle as they are — always count.
Lyrically, the band continues to struggle against the woodenness of their own words, with Caleb once again relying on bellowing melodramatic declarations rather than evocative stories. The West Coast escapism of “Conversation Piece” comes from his cousin Matthew’s lovely guitar line, not the verses, and “Over”, like “Closer” before it, tries to examine psychic pain, but gets undermined by the heavy-handedness of phrases like “I see you’re crazy and so am I.” Even with the band’s youngest member (bassist Jared) approaching 30, the Kings still only write about men and women in the broadest terms imaginable.
Yet, at the same time, several songs (including “Waste a Moment”) have some charming internal rhyming, and even the aforementioned tracks still plug into the same singular, hook-filled groove as the rest of the album. Jared’s bass on “Over”, in particular, finally achieves the U2 atmospherics KOL started flirting with on Only By the Night, without ever succumbing to being a parody of Adam Clayton. There’s also the added bonus of Caleb’s delivery. While he never full-on revisits the indecipherable yowl of yesteryear KOL classics like “Happy Alone” and “King of the Rodeo”, he’s freer with shifting the dynamics, moving from strategically placed barks to just-hammy-enough vibrato.
And that’s the record’s biggest asset, really. Even if WALLS doesn’t live up to the marketing’s promise of completely redefining Kings of Leon’s sound, it at least finds them at ease with themselves. Although Mechanical Bull attempted the same thing after two albums’ worth of public turmoil, there was still an onset of exhaustion, the sense of a family band who hadn’t yet fully repaired their frayed relationships. But here, the Followills sound mature, relaxed, and locked in with one another. To put out their best album in years, they didn’t have to tear the walls down, as the teaser suggested. They just had to take a breath and repaint them.
Essential Tracks: “Waste a Moment”, Eyes On You”, and “WALLS”