I was introduced to Kings of Leon in the spring of 2009, just as their career was finally hitting its stride in America after years of building a considerable fan base overseas. They were playing a show at the basketball arena on campus at the University of Miami, and I went with a couple of roommates to see them play despite not knowing their catalog at all. After enduring a horrible opening act (a critically lauded band called the Walkmen), Kings of Leon took the stage and played a great set, even though frontman Caleb Followill admitted midway through the show that earlier he hadn’t felt like taking the stage that night. Seriously, he actually said that, though he added that he was having a great time. (Prick.) This was, of course, the tour cycle for 2008’s Only by the Night, an international smash hit that went double platinum in the States and received platinum certifications in a staggering twelve different countries.
The lead single, “Sex on Fire,” went #1 in the UK (where the band has long been popular), and while it only reached #56 on the American charts, it whetted our appetites for “Use Somebody,” which peaked at #4 in the US and #2 in the UK and was a deservedly ubiquitous smash, completely overshadowing both the subsequent singles and the follow-up album, 2010’s Come Around Sundown — all everybody wanted was to keep hearing “Use Somebody.” Come Around Sundown was pretty much a dud. It sold well enough, garnering a gold certification in the US and receiving several platinum certifications overseas, but in retrospect, it’s clear this was mostly a result of sheer momentum. The critical response was middling and none of the singles had any lasting impact, though the lead single “Radioactive” charted reasonably well. (Though again, this was more a result of momentum — people wanted to hear what was next.) I didn’t have much interest in the album at the time, and I’m saying that as someone who liked Only by the Night.
You see, even back then I had been around long enough to see a cash grab a mile away, and that’s precisely what Come Around Sundown was. Kings of Leon had become huge stars and were looking to capitalize on it however they could, as quickly as they could, which is only natural. I actually listened to Come Around Sundown for the first time just now, and it’s exactly what I suspected it was back in 2010: flat. It’s pretty easy to tell that it was assembled and rushed out to the public as quickly as possible, and usually when a band does that, there is little to no progression on the part of the band’s development as artists, which is too bad. Perhaps Kings of Leon were feeling emboldened by the selection of three (yes, three) of their albums — Youth & Young Manhood (2003), Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004), and Only by the Night — by Rolling Stone for its 100 Best Albums of the 2000s list. (I like the band, but come on.)
At any rate, something just didn’t smell right about Come Around Sundown back when it was released, and so I stayed away — and so did everyone else. By the time of Mechanical Bull‘s fall 2013 release, I still thought of Kings of Leon as a band that was popular in 2009, since their entire Come Around Sundown period will always be a blank spot for me. Listening to the new record finds the band considerably more relaxed than on Come Around Sundown, which felt strained. Released a full three years after Come Around Sundown (and five years after Only by the Night), Mechanical Bull is a result of the group going back to the drawing board and, now that the spotlight is off of them, having some fun again. It’s a solid album — the kind they used to make before they hit the big time — and hopefully Come Around Sundown will prove to be just one miscue in an otherwise good career.