You’ll find three common elements in virtually every review of Kings of Leon’s fifth album, Come Around Sundown: 1) a comparison to U2, 2) something about the Tennessee band’s practically Faulknerian backstory as prodigal sons of an itinerant Southern preacher, and 3) a note about how the act’s ularity overseas (especially in Great Britain) exploded like a keg of TNT in a Looney Tunes cartoon long before that fuse ever caught fire in the United States. But catch it did in 2008 when Only by the Night moved 2 million units Stateside, propelled by the hit singles “Sex on Fire” and ” Use Somebody.”
These guys are so big, in fact, that influential rock critic Neil McCormick, writing for the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, wonders, “Can the Kings of Leon save rock and roll?” But a better question might be, Can they save themselves? Sundown’s 13 tracks blend lush, reverb-drenched guitars with aching anthems about addiction and death, drinkin’ and lovin’, losing your teeth … and losing your soul.
Kings of Leon consists of three brothers and a cousin—all with the last name Followill. “Radioactive” alludes to the Followills’ Christian heritage. “When the roll is called up yonder,” frontman Caleb sings, “I hope you see me there.” In addition, the song focuses on how the communities in which we live shape the kind of people we become. “The Face” implies that we discover who we are in relationship with others (“Find out what you are/Face to face”). It counsels perseverance (“Just put one foot in front of the other/ … Once you’ve had enough/Carry on”) and caring for those we meet along life’s way (“Don’t forget to love before you’re gone”). “No Money” tells of a prodigal whose hell-bent choices have left him weary enough to recognize the errors in his ways (“I’m a waste of time/And all in all a waste of living/ … I’ve been down to the horns and back/And I’m way too tired of blowing out the burning candles”).
“The End” encourages an addict (“I just wanna hold you/Take you by your hand/And tell you that you’re good enough”). The song obliquely comments on the fact that good intentions alone aren’t enough to extricate someone from the vice grip of addiction. (“He swears he’s gonna give it up/It’s never gonna be enough”). What those struggling with compulsive, destructive habits need is help from the outside (“I just wanna be there/When you’re all alone/Thinking about a better day”).
Deep emotional darkness permeates “Pyro,” a song about a father on the verge of hatching a suicidal arson plot: “Single book of matches/Gonna burn what’s standing in the way/ … And tell the kids that I’m OK/If I’m forgotten/They’ll remember me for today.” He says of his soul’s sad state, “All the black inside me/Is slowly seeping from the bone/Everything I cherish/Is slowly dying or it’s gone.”
“Pony Up” begins with a man propositioning a woman (“A little place in mind/Maybe I could bed you down”). The story concludes with a bar fight in which she apparently gets gunned down (“The crash of bottles breaking and the swinging chandelier/In a rain of bullets and blood and snow/I saw the midnight coming and watched her go”). Similarly, the angry narrator on “Pickup Truck” puts the moves on a woman one moment (“Pour yourself on me/And you know I’m the one that you won’t forget”) and bashes a rival suitor the next (“I throwed him down/Kicking and screaming and rolling around/A little piece of a bloody tooth/Just so you know I was thinking of you”). “Back Down South”—a song about a beer-drenched soiree—includes this puzzling riff: “Pretty girls naked to their curls/Ready to go lay in a coffin.”
A drunken man leers at a woman’s legs on “Birthday.” A lewd reference to the male anatomy turns up on “Mi Amigo,” as do two uses of “a‑‑” and a line about doing drugs intravenously (“That little friend/Shoots me up and downtown/When I can’t get me drunk enough”). There’s one use of the f-word. The crudity “p‑‑‑ing” can be heard on “No Money.” “The End” greets setbacks with an obscene hand gesture.
At times, Kings of Leon exhibits a maturing perspective, especially compared to the unabashed and unbridled hedonism found in some of the band’s previous efforts. But just when you think the Followill clan might be growing up, these would-be arena rock Kings ramble into yet another debauched tale of getting drunk, shooting up drugs or knocking someone’s teeth out. Maybe we should hold off a bit on the rock-savior coronation ceremony.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.