Sound — 7
From the outset - the effect-heavy Closer, with it's expansive, creepy atmosphere - it is clear that Kings of Leon have moved on. Long gone are the days of Youth and Young Manhood, the raw Southern rock album released when the youngest of the band (bassist Jared) was just fifteen. Their evolution has been clear ever since: with both subsequent albums, they became more polished, growing further from their Pentecostal origins. If Closer is the result, then they have stretched their wings further than most thought possible. The three brothers and a cousin, who grew up with the obligatory Southern back story - their father was a preacher, their childhoods spent moving from town to town - have been nothing in their career thus far if not honest. Whether it was the drug-fuelled whine of Soft or the grubby Spiral Staircase, they have never attempted to dress up their less glamorous attributes in anything other than skinny jeans. A promotion strategy for this album involves a new Home Video appearing on their website showing the band and crew at home and in the studio, every day in September prior to the release date. This under-publicised move exposes the not inconsiderable egos at work behind the album: lead singer and lyricist Caleb in particular appears fragile and belligerent, sensitive and self-aware. They have always been served best by this prickly honesty, their willingness to appear unchanged and unvarnished in front of their fans; this stadium-rock album, then, is most at risk of losing that vital authenticity and slipping too far into U2 territory. Crawl does not restore faith at that level. The lyrics even become political at one point, though only in the vaguest possible sense: The reds, the whites and abused/The crucified USA. While the band - particularly Jared - have been laudably vocal in their support for the Democratic party and for young people voting in general, these lines are neither inspiring nor particularly coherent. It is up to the next track, the cringingly-titled number one single Sex on Fire, to bring Kings of Leon back onto more familiar territory, which they predictably and satisfyingly stomp all over.
Lyrics — 9
Caleb's best lyrics thus far have been the low-key expressions of solitude and uncertainty from KoL's latest two albums, Aha Shake Heartbreak and Because of the Times. Use Somebody forms a highlight of the album for the same reason. While the heart of the track lies in its understated lyrics and exquisitely tortured performance from Caleb, the quality of the sound cannot possibly be ignored, from its sweeping backing vocals and symphonic guitar to its powerfully musical bass line and technically stunning drum fills. It is difficult to dislike even the less striking tracks here: Manhattan becomes more charming at each listen, with its basic but endearing lyrics: We're gonna show this town how to kiss these stars. Again the musicianship is obvious in the warm, melodic rhythm section. Revelry wallows in reverberating, melancholic self-pity, again revealing slices of the confused and unhappy anti-hero: It was me that drove us right in the ground, Caleb moans. 17 sees us back onto another familiar subject. Oh, she's only seventeen, it begins, and give it a guess where it goes from there. It suffers in comparison to the other Kings of Leon song which features a seventeen-year-old love interest, Slow Night So Long; it is less contemplative, more prosaic and less greasy. Where Slow Night So Long is jammed full of disgust, self-loathing and crippling loneliness, 17 comes across comparatively smug. Notion is a vocal and musical strut, but lyrically devoid of anything new. It must be said that on the less interesting songs, drummer Nathan seems to work twice as hard: Be Somebody features a ferociously engaging rhythm section, as well as swampy guitar work from lead guitarist and cousin-rather-than-brother Matthew.
Overall Impression — 8
I Want You is the most obviously rhythmic track, a laidback and quirkily observant ode to nights out and small towns. I will here note that Kings of Leon have come a long way from their earlier everything's the same, this town is pitiful/and I'll be getting out as soon as I can fly attitude: we must assume that small towns are much easier to admire from a Japanese hotel room than they are from an actual small town. The fickle freshman, probably thinks he's cooler than you, the lyrics go, trailing into descriptions of the land of the creeps and home-made fratboy pornography. What this has to do with the I want you chorus line is never made clear, but it is funkier and fresher than a lot of the material on the album. Cold Desert is the album closer, a song written - Caleb claims - while under the influence of pain medication following a fight with Nathan. Cold Desert has none of the musical energy of the similar Day Old Blues or The Runner from previous albums, and at first seems bloated in comparison; in fact, this lyrically devastating, intensely personal, and achingly miserable hymn of desolation numbers among Kings of Leon's most powerful tracks. Jesus don't love me, Caleb howls into the emptiness, No one ever carried my load. I'm too young to feel this old. For me, this does not equal 2005's Aha Shake Heartbreak either track-for-track or cohesively, but this does not make it a bad record. It has substituted much of it's raw teenaged energy for musical skill and lyrical exploration; it is a big, sprawling epic of an album, and I imagine it is just precisely the one that Kings of Leon intended to make.