Point being, Kings of Leon – who play Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion next Tuesday – are now sorta just a thing in rock music. Not huge, not obscure, just a band with some name value cranking out radio hits and trying to survive in a musical climate where survival isn’t all that easy.
This wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, the band was poised to become the biggest thing in rock music; yes, it’s been almost ten years since Kings of Leon hit big, yet another example of how music signifies the quick passage of time.
You know the story by now. Gang of country boys gets a rock group together and toils in obscurity, only to find moderate success in the U.K. Gang of country boys toils a bit more before finding more pronounced success in the United States, landing festival gigs, radio play and the like.
And then, boom, overnight success, all thanks to a pair of massive singles that couldn’t be more different. “Sex on Fire,” in retrospect, could not fail. The song basically checks all the boxes. It was performed by a band of model-like pretty boys with guitars who women wanted and who men wanted to be. It was catchy as hell and tailor-made for rock radio. Last, but certainly not least, “sex” was right there in the title.
So it made sense that 2008’s “Sex on Fire” pretty much owned every radio and streaming chart in 2008. It made even more sense that the band went another way with its follow-up single, “Use Somebody.”
Whereas “Sex on Fire” detailed the hot-and-heavy physicality of a relationship, “Use Somebody” fell back on that tried-and-true mantra that has gotten many a rock bands over; namely, that grungy rockers need love too. The song – which admittedly is damn near perfect as pop-rock goes – absolutely owned the charts in 2009 and eventually won Grammys for Record of the Year, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Rock Song.
The Kings – with their brash personas and catchy tunes – were arguably the most popular and polarizing group in pop-rock. Whereas love-em-or-hate-em acts before them, like Creed and Nickelback, couldn’t really stand up musically, Kings of Leon not only had the polarizing rock star personas, but the musical chops to match. Were they overrated? Was it even possible they were somehow underrated, that their good looks and throngs of young female fans obscured a band meant to stand the test of time? Or were they some flash in the pan, a here today/gone tomorrow sort of outfit?
The truth is, you could answer yes to each of those questions and be right, just as you could answer no and do the same. In hindsight, Kings of Leon probably were a bit overrated owing to their looks and catchy tunes. Hell, Kings circa-2007 basically resemble what you’d get if you designed the ideal pop-rock band in a lab. Of course, that same band paid its dues for years before experiencing such success, and did so by releasing a trio of albums – Youth & Young Manhood, Aha Shake Heartbreak, Because of the Times – that hold up to this day.
But with success often comes adversity, and the Kings have certainly experienced their fair share. In fact, the band never really recovered from that fateful 2011 night in Dallas when an inebriated Caleb Followill walked off the stage and never returned. What followed was months of bad press, rumors of rehab and substance abuse, and a canceled tour. More important, that spilled over into the Kings’ follow-up record, Come Around Sundown, a critical and commercial dud. Even front man Followill admitted in an interview with Rolling Stone that he “checked out” on that particular record.
As music fans are wont to do, many moved on from Kings of Leon after that. Their past two records – Mechanical Bull and WALLS – have debuted well but haven’t come close to reaching the heights set before them by 2008’s multiplatinum smash, Only by the Night.
This is a shame, of course. Whereas that album and the ones that preceded it caught a band on the way up but still figuring things out, and whereas Come Around Sundown was the band’s stereotypical “difficult record,” Mechanical Bull and WALLS find Kings of Leon in the best place they’ve ever been musically. Both records are call-backs to the band’s musical stylings of yesteryear but with the experience and wisdom that befit an older band (Kings of Leon formed nearly 20 years ago).
The band is older, wiser and better than a decade ago. Kings of Leon may no longer be on top of the pop-rock pyramid, but then again, perhaps this is where they were meant to be all along.