Kings of Leon are one of rock’s mainstream success stories over the last 20-years. Few guitar bands have sold as many records as the Followill’s, but their rise to stadium-sized venues came at a stark cost to their credibility. Following 2008’s Only By The Night that saw ‘Use Somebody’ and ‘Sex On Fire’ pencil out their previous work in a flash, and over the last decade, they’ve become shorthand for commercial soulless rock. On When You See Yourself, that Southern soul that littered their first three records has made a welcome return — albeit at a compromise.
The album saw the band link up with producer Markus Dravs, who has previously worked with Arcade Fire and Florence + The Machine, at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio back in 2019. The pandemic threw a spanner in the works, meaning that it is only out now despite being finished the year before last. The unforeseen delay now means that this is their first record since 2016’s WALLS and the most significant gap between albums in their career. If you were expecting a euphoric album full of stadium-filling radio-friendly tunes, then When You See Yourself will leave you feeling short-changed.
While there are undoubtedly moments with that sentiment littered across the album, such as rapturous toe-tapping lead single ‘The Bandit and the vivacious ‘Stormy Weather’, for the first time in a long while, it feels like Kings Of Leon are firmly wearing their heart on their sleeve on this record. This unfeigned approach helps give the album an authenticity, one that shines through for the most part, even if they do occasionally miss the target.
The Followill’s trade in the numerous ‘Woah, Oh’s that they’ve become synonymous with and feel as though they have challenged themselves to step out of their comfort zone on When You See Yourself. Experimentation is not the first word that springs to mind when one thinks of Kings Of Leon; by all means, this album isn’t anything from left-field, but there are subtle tweaks that pour some much-needed heart back into the band.
‘A Wave’ begins with a simple piano arrangement and Caleb Followill’s naked voice, pleading: “I’m drying out in this weather, feeling of parasites, And the time when the night feels better, Is when you don’t go.” The track is an emotional one that captures the singer at his lowest ebb, crying out for help and slowly builds up before bursting into pandemonium during the final sector. The track epitomises the wanted essence of the record, capturing Kings of Leon stripped-back and relying on their Nashville charm to see them through.
‘Supermarket’ and ‘Time In Disguise’ showcase the album at it’s dullest, on the other hand. The tracks drag on a little too long and, whilst the two songs are pleasant enough on the ears thanks to Followill’s woozy vocals, there’s an inoffensiveness to the pair of fillers. Both don’t particularly say anything of note, nor do they make you feel much as a listener.
After a couple of near-misses from a lyrical perspective, Followill then flexes his storytelling muscles on the dreamy ‘Clare and Eddie’. The vocalist sings on the second verse, “There’s a glow at the face of the canyon, And a sound blowing ’round, Says you’re nowhere you’ve ever been before, Take a plunge into the Colorado River, Where you feel yourself for the very first time, I knew you’d be a friend of mine.”
The track is a far cry from the brash anthems that Kings of Leon have become renowned for over recent years. The line, “Fire’s gonna rage if people don’t change,” feels especially poignant considering the modest shift in direction from the Tennesseans. Caleb Followill has never had a lyrical compass of an Alex Turner or Noel Gallagher, but ‘Clare and Eddie’ is a valiant effort that shows off his storytelling instincts.
Kings of Leon have made themselves one of the biggest bands on the planet, which is of great reward, but it also means that they’ve made compromises on When You See Yourself. It’s an album that has moments that both their old-school fanbase who cherished Youth & Young Manhood in 2003 will enjoy and their post ‘Sex On Fire’ crowd will lap up — but fulfilling the needs of both these demographics is one that sees Kings of Leon fall short at delivering a record that both fanbases will love rather than like.