The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

The rapid decline of Kings of Leon
Photo courtesy of the artist

Kings of Leon have made their way from the underdog bar-band darlings of their early days to an arena-sized draw and festival headliners. But the Nashville quartet's fanbase has grown at precisely the same rate that their music has diminished in quality. So here we are in 2013 with a tone-deaf but blindly dedicated audience that seemingly will put up with any old dreck, just as long as it's being made by the aptly named Followill brothers (and their cousin).

While KoL have just announced a large tour that will bring their southern-styled rock to big arenas all over the country in support of their newest effort, Mechanical Bull -- including a stop at the Target Center on March 6 -- we take a look back at how the band has managed to become so good at making such bad music.

The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

The myth of the "Southern Strokes"

The KoL origin story is an intriguing one. As legend has it, the Followill brothers grew up as the sons of a Pentecostal preacher before diving headfirst into the world of rock 'n' roll once they broke free of their father's restrictive upbringing. But the band had the influential backing of RCA straight from the start. The major label capitalized on the musical trends of the times by carefully grooming the young group to be the "Southern Strokes."

And I'll readily admit that the Holy Roller Novocaine EP and their subsequent full-length debut, Youth & Young Manhood, contained some stone-cold hits in the form of "Molly's Chambers" and "Red Morning Light." The album received hearty initial praise from NME, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. The fact that the band was playing mostly small venues at this time -- including an Entry gig in 2003 and a series of memorable shows in subsequent years at First Ave -- added to the boozy, bluesy charm of their club-ready anthems.

But then the band began to get their initial taste of the big time, playing high-profile sets at music festivals all over the world -- where they quickly grew more popular than they are in the U.S. As they opened for U2, Pearl Jam, and even the Strokes, their focus as well as their music started to change. They set their creative sights on becoming a big-time rock band, and they started to commercially capitalize on their good looks and affable demeanor.

The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

Aha Shit Sandwich

At this point, everyone in the band got stylish haircuts -- never a good idea, just ask Metallica -- and were poised to become the biggest band in the land. And with RCA's backing, KoL were well on their way with the release of their second full-length record, Aha Shake Heartbreak. "The Bucket" is a pretty decent, straightforward rocker, but the rest of the album is far too polished and tame compared to their loose, rollicking earlier material. At this point, many of their early fans began seeing through the sonic facade that the band and their label had meticulously crafted, and jumped ship.

But that didn't stop the record from achieving multi-platinum success in Australia and the U.K., and subsequent touring in those spots followed. They returned home intent on improving the relative lukewarm reception their new songs received here in the States, where the album only reached as high as 55 in the charts, and turned to the strength of their live show to help their fans connect with their lackluster new material. But KoL's star was clearly on the rise at this point, no matter what people thought of the new album.

A still from the "On Call" video in which Caleb Followill appears to be quite desparate already.
A still from the "On Call" video in which Caleb Followill appears to be quite desparate already.

A Curse of the Times

KoL stuck to the tried-and-true textbook of Rock 101 by attempting to get a little weird and experimental on their third album, Because of the Times. The timid and muddy results proved that the band isn't capable of anything more grand than the routine, radio-ready claptrap of "On Call." Their idea of social commentary is naming a song "McFearless," and once you take away the borderline rehashed hair-metal of their riffs, the lyrics you were left with are laughable and trite. "I like going nowhere." Indeed.

The U.S. started warming up to the band by this point, with the album reaching 25 on the charts. Rolling Stone praised it, which balanced out Pitchfork's scathing review, and the rest of the world couldn't get enough of KoL. Because of the Times reached number one on the album charts of Ireland, New Zealand, and the U.K., with Australia going quite mad for the record as well. In addition to headlining tours and festivals across the globe, Kings of Leon played three shows at First Avenue in 2007 alone, including a sold-out two-night stint at the legendary local club in August of that year.

So you can't fault the band for trying to intimately connect with a U.S. audience that was a bit slow to warm up to them, but the songs they were using to forge that bond with the crowd were thin and uninspired. Supporters who didn't require much depth to their rock music were waiting. And KoL dutifully played right into their hands.


The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

Dumbed Down Sundown

At this point, Kings of Leon's popularity had reached a fever pitch, despite releasing two successive albums that were tediously similar in both style and tone. Hell, the guys even had a smash hit with a song called "Sex on Fire" -- which is even more terrible than it sounds -- proving that they could put out whatever frat-rock rubbish that they wanted and their fans would consume it while screaming for more.

Everything about the band sounded false and affected by this point. From the brokenhearted search for companionship that was ready-made for a stadium sing-along, "Use Somebody," to the countrified fiddling and shameless Mumford-style pandering that plagued a majority of Come Around Sundown, Kings of Leon were clearly content with their stature as one of the biggest bands in the world, and self-satisfaction is never a good thing for any creative endeavor. There hasn't been any excitement or exploration in the KoL catalog for years, with one antiseptic bar-stool anthem failing to distinguish itself from the next. Speaking of stool, July 23, 2010, marked the night that the pigeons fought back in St. Louis.

Mechanical Bullshit

Seriously, are Kings of Leon even trying at this point? Naming their new record Mechanical Bull links the music to the bars filled with their target demographic. And hell, while they're at it, why not just name their first single from the record "Supersoaker"? Just a few guys wandering around their local watering hole or Walmart and just naming their songs after whatever catches their eye.

There is little doubt that the subsequent Mechanical Bull tour will be a smashing success for Kings of Leon. They set their sights on becoming the next U2, but have instead filled the radio-friendly, middle-of-the-road territory frequented by Bon Jovi, Goo Goo Dolls, and the like, and they seem totally okay with that and show no signs of changing their ways. It has been going on a decade since any sort of depth and soul lurked in those regurgitated hooks.

And why should they? Kings of Leon have been built for this type of success straight from the start. If you got to the end of this piece, those bland, arena-sized songs full of simple choruses just might be your cup of Southern Comfort. We spat out the spiked Kool-Aid once their early promise was irretrievably broken.

Kings of Leon. With Gary Clark Jr. $29.50-$59.50. Thursday, March 6, 2014. Tickets here.

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