Kings Of Leon: Return Of The Prodigal Sons

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The Kings have always approached songwriting as a collaborative process. On Youth And Young Manhood, Caleb, Nathan and Petraglia were credited with writing all the songs, but that’s not exactly how it was done. “No one has ever written a bass part for me,” says Jared of the band’s writing process. “Everyone writes their own part that comes from a music idea someone’s discovered and that eventually spawns a song.”

The biggest boost to the Kings’ slowly percolating stateside career, however, was their live show, which was hastened by landing the opening slot on U2’s 2005 Vertigo Tour. Suddenly the band went from club land obscurity to venues like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center. This was soon followed by a tour with Pearl Jam and later opening for a guy named Bob Dylan.

“One of the most awesome things for me was being able to tour with Pearl Jam,” Caleb says. “When I was 14, they were my favorite band. And touring with Dylan, to get his stamp of approval, you can’t buy that, ever.” Dylan told the band he really liked their song “Trani.”

2007’s Because Of The Times suggests the Followills paid rapt attention to the headlining bands. The epic, sweeping guitar parts on “Knocked Up” and “On Call” sound as if Matthew swiped the Edge’s effect pedals, and Caleb’s voice sounded more Vedder-esque while increasingly dispensing the odd inflections. The album shot to Number 1 in the UK and went Top 25 here, but it in no way presaged what would happen a year later.

An album like Only By The Night comes around only a few times in a generation: a crossover rock record that transcends circumscribed notions of genres, radio formats, and the supposed end of the music industry as we know it. The album launched the Kings of Leon into the rarefied strata of international superstardom only a handful of acts – U2, Coldplay, Green Day and Radiohead – ever achieve. On Only By The Night the band suddenly sounded arena-ready. The songs are more epic, anthemic and atmospheric. The group is more musically in lockstep than ever before, but still leave enough room for Caleb’s warm soul-growl to soar. The first single, the pulsating “Sex On Fire,” went to Number 1 on the rock charts and won a Grammy, but it wasn’t until the second single that the Kings became a household name.

Without Richard Gere and Debra Winger, however, “Use Somebody” might never have happened. Like so much of the Kings repertoire, the song started out as a jam during soundcheck – this time before a show in Scotland. The night before, the band had been drinking and fighting (a Kings of Leon pastime) when Caleb began riffing on the campy but classic pop confection, “Up Where We Belong,” from The Officer And A Gentleman soundtrack (originally performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes). The band sped it up and Caleb added reconciling lyrics. The band knew the song was something special, but for Caleb, who is over-sensitive to the rather specious concept of “selling out,” it took some convincing to put tracks like “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire” on the album.

“I knew ‘Use Somebody’ had a message that people could relate to,” says Caleb, “but ‘Sex On Fire’ was meant to be a funny song. When people suggested it for a single, we said, ‘Okay, then it can’t be on the record.’ Then a dude from the record company flew in and literally got down on his hands and knees and said, ‘Trust me, We’re gonna make this a single.’ It did a lot of big things and I still can’t believe it.”

No matter how many years spent struggling, no band is ever really prepared for the multitude of what-the-fuck moments that come with superstardom. It’s not just playing sold-out arenas across the globe and playing to legions of screaming fans, it’s a thousand surreal experiences. Things like playing ping-pong backstage with Prince Harry or playing a private party with Prince, with Jay-Z and Ringo there. How does a band prepare for such things and not let the pressure interfere with recording their next album?

“We knew we didn’t want to go into the studio and make five ‘Sex on Fire’s and five ‘Use Somebody’s, Nathan says about Come Around Sundown, the new Kings record. “We never had the pressure on us before of making a record after the success of the previous album. But after making five albums, we have a certain way of doing things, and we weren’t going to change that.” The notion of “selling-out” or pandering or radically changing their sound never even crossed the band’s world-wise minds.

Come Around Sundown is a more subtle, mature and complex-sounding album than past recordings, devoid of the arena-ready anthems on the last album. Gone too are the crash and brash and mush-mouthed vocals of earlier recordings. In their place are solid songwriting, subtle textures and moods, and Caleb’s golden croon, which has never sounded better.

The first single “Radioactive” came out in late September and debuted on the Hot 100. It’s a catchy, mid-tempo blue-eyed soul song with a gospel-inflected chorus on which Caleb’s controlled baritone sounds surprisingly similar to Bruce Springsteen. Interestingly enough, two of the album’s best sounding tracks – “Back Down South” and “Pickup Truck” – are country-rock ballads, more “Sweet Melissa” then “Use Somebody.”

“We thought recording in New York City, we’d take on the sounds of our surroundings, but it made us sound more like we were from Nashville,” Caleb has said. “I don’t think we could have written a song like ‘Back Down South’ if we were back in Nashville surrounded by a million country songwriters. We probably never would have put fiddle on the record.” Nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder.

Nashville is where, finally, the band will go back to after tonight’s make-up gig here in St. Louis. The crowd goes berserk when the Kings take the stage and play the first few fuzzed-out notes of “Crawl” from Only By The Night. There will be no mention of birds or turds or congregational blow-outs or sleeping in cars or superstardom or all the pressure they’re under, just a rock band with intent and focus on rocking the masses.

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