There once was a time, before Spotify, TikTok, Seamless, Peloton and NFTs, when it still wasn’t that out of the ordinary for a rock ’n’ roll band like Kings Of Leon to top charts all over the world with Actual Rock’n’Roll Songs™. Now here we are in 2021, with the closest thing to guitar-based music on the Hot 100 being a re-record of a 13-year-old Taylor Swift track and Machine Gun Kelly’s emo/hip-hop/EDM hybrids. Not even Luke Combs’ top 20 crossover country ballad “Better Together” has any guitar in it.
Into this musical moment comes the eighth Kings of Leon album, “When You See Yourself,” the Tennessee band’s first in more than four years. The 11-track collection was written and recorded before the pandemic, so there’s no use reading any special significance into the lyrics along those lines. The words still resonate for other reasons, but the band’s ongoing shift away from its scruffy roots into something less easily identifiable is the most notable development here (additional kudos for making the album available as a first-of-its kind NFT). Who knows where it fits in this modern age, but some of it sounds pretty great.
Exhibit A is first single “The Bandit,” easily the best Kings of Leon song in a decade (the Casey McGrath-directed video is also excellent). This propulsive rocker has everything the band does so well, from perfectly intertwined guitar parts, Caleb Followill’s pleading vocals and a dark, powerful energy a la Pearl Jam circa “Vitalogy.” “Golden Restless Age” is an all-grown-up “Use Somebody,” with an arena-ready, U2-ish chorus and effective synth accents from producer Markus Dravs.
But whereas vintage Kings was all tension and release (“Sex on Fire,” we’re looking in your direction), these songs seem largely content to simmer. Opener “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away” spritzes the band’s trademark bass-driven melodies with tasty atmospheric touches, but never quite shifts into the higher gear you expect it to. The synth-dappled “A Wave” is mostly a voice-and-piano ballad except for brief, jarring flashes of full-band rock, while “Echoing” starts off big and smiley and just keeps going from there.
More interesting are the songs where the band commits to a style and sees it through. “Stormy Weather” is a slice of melancholic soul boasting earworm bass and vocal melodies, while “100,000 People” works a machine-like pulse into a measured, late-night groove to soundtrack your Uber home after last call. “Claire and Eddie” is a straight-up mid-tempo country ballad, with Followill admitting, “I’m chemically inclined to say what’s on my mind,” and “Supermarket” sounds like a song from “Youth and Young Manhood” played at half-speed.
Longtime fans may crave the wild abandon of days gone by, but others will just be happy to hear the sound of a guitar. “Everybody wants a little piece of my time / Keep it all the rage and they’ll stand in line,” Followill sings on closer “Fairytale,” perhaps acknowledging he’s no longer content to make music aimed at the masses. Coming from four guys who pretty much look exactly the same as they did in 2003, this maturity is a welcome addition to Kings of Leon’s emotional palette.