Fully admitting that there are a number of worthy candidates, and only if pressed, I would have to deem “Back Down South” the worst moment on Kings of Leon’s Come Around Sundown. Not that it’s the album’s worst song; on the contrary, it’s arguably the most sonorous and pleasant track of the bunch. But “Back Down South” so perfectly represents the phoniness that courses through the album’s 48 minutes that it deserves special attention. You can almost hear the Followill boys carefully plotting their new record’s SOUTHERN SONG during rehearsals: “y’all, there needs to be a fiddle, a slide gee-tar, and just in case folks don’t remember we’re from down yonder in Tennessee, let’s remind them in the song’s title.” Lest you think I’m being too harsh, consider the “impromptu” caught-on-tape hootin’, hollerin’, and high-fivin’ at the song’s end. I can’t help but think Kings of Leon are weirdly aping a song like Wilco’s “Casino Queen,” which has an identical hootenanny coda. But where “Casino Queen” is 2:45 of rollicking joy, “Back Down South” is wistful and downbeat: the self-congratulatory ovation at its end is beyond baffling. Were the boys so thrilled they made it through the take that they simply couldn’t contain themselves?
If a band has to fail, it’s always best when they fail spectacularly. There’s something almost pleasurable in witnessing an overreach so great that it’s not merely a train wreck, but a catastrophe that distracts you from a train wreck. The source of the pleasure isn’t schadenfreude, but a nagging question played on repeat: what the fuck were they thinking? At the very least, the listener is still engaged in the music, and in some perverse sense, that amounts to a minor success. Alas, Kings of Leon don’t even throw us that meager bone. Oh Come Around Sundown is plenty bad, but it’s also really boring. Worst of all, it has moments so cloying that I repeatedly had to stop listening to cleanse my aural palate with the sound of street noise.
How did a band once so wiry and scrappy transform into the worst sort of rock-radio pabulum? King of Leon’s debut, Youth and Young Manhood, by no means a great album, at least had the vigor typical of the garage rock revival of the early-2000s. Kings of Leon presented themselves as a capable, promising, and fun bar band. Instead of exploring their rawness, they polished their sound with each successive album, taking their cues from U2’s bombast rather than the Some Girls-era Stones sound that inspired their best early songs. The result was great commercial and critical success, in the form of the multiple-Grammy-winning “Use Somebody.” And they deserved the plaudits. “Use Somebody” sounds like a hit in every way. However hammy Caleb Followill’s vocal, “Use Somebody” is tuneful and cathartic, a worthy imitation of U2’s best. Unfortunately for Kings of Leon, a truism of the natural world applies to Come Around Sundown – lightning doesn’t strike twice.
That Kings of Leon are still being compared to other bands five albums into their career is not a result of critical laziness, but of the fact that behind every note is a zero, a non-entity. They were never worthy of their “Southern Strokes” moniker, but the U2 comparisons, however belabored, still apply. The Edge’s shimmering guitar delays, so iconic, abound on Come Around Sundown. “The End,” one of the album’s better tracks, begins with an inverse replica of the solo drum opening to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and then goes on to borrow, via guitar, the low-high-low synth hook of the Killers’ “Smile Like You Mean It.” While most of Come Around Sundown’s residual checks are owed to Bono & Co., a few are also due to Aerosmith’s Nine Lives for “Mary,” Pearl Jam’s self-titled eighth album for “No Money,” and Bruce Springsteen’s Working on a Dream for “The Face” and “The Immortals.” Remarkably, even those sub-par albums are better than most of what’s on Come Around Sundown.
If Kings of Leon have an LVP, it’s lead singer Caleb Followill, whose affected vocals and foolish lyrics provide Come Around Sundown’s best howlers. Caleb’s vocals, in the past tossed-off and charmingly lackadaisical, are now wrought with fake squeaks and painful flourishes. Where another vocalist would sing “fight,” he sings “fay-ah-yah-hayt.” Sure, it’s an acceptable embellishment once or twice, but does every vocal delivery require a bucketful of extra syllables? We get it, Caleb. You’re pained. Really, really pained. The lyrics are even worse. The aforementioned “Back Down South” contains the following hand-me-the-rhyming-dictionary singsong:
Underneath the stars,
Where we parked the cars,
Ain't showing signs of stopping.
Pretty little girls,
Naked to their curls,
Ready to lay in the coffin.
On “Mi Amigo,” Caleb Followill delivers a lyric that sounds like “she wants my asshole to sing a song.” In other words, a fart. It’s an unfortunate mondegreen – and the most apt description of Come Around Sundown that I can think of. [D+]