Where did Kings of Leon go?
With its eighth album When You See Yourself, the band has asked itself this very question. The resulting LP is its answer, a set of songs that finds the Followill brothers attempting to reconnect with their roots while accepting their current place in the landscape of music. While an upgrade from their previous streak of albums ranging from bad to abysmal, When You See Yourself is the sound of resignation from tired artists churning out new music long after they’ve run out of creative steam.
It’s been over a decade since the pinnacle of Kings of Leon’s (KoL) stadium rock reach, when the opening riff to “Sex on Fire” was practically ingrained into the global consciousness and “Use Somebody” commanded a sea of 10,000 lighters every single night. While 2008’s Only by the Night garnered the band widespread commercial success, it began their creative descent — the band’s scuffy, brazen Southern rock was traded in for an arena-sized sound that would evolve to feel emptier than any concert venue in the past year. 2016’s Walls was an identity crisis of an album and a low-point, where the band threw everything at the wall (no pun intended) just to see what stuck. A fall from grace would be putting it lightly.
Given their track record, When You See Yourself is by all means an upgrade from the Kings of Leon of recent memory. Producer Markus Dravs returns after Walls, giving the band’s sound a nice lift; the guitars sound bright and full of fuzz and the mixes are clean. Synthesizers make their way into plenty of songs across the album, fleshing out arrangements that hit like smooth, rolling waves as the band switches gears from the sound of their youth and young manhood into laid-back, introspective adulthood, such as on the sentimental “100,000 People.” When the band occasionally dips into its roots, it sounds great — the sailing song “Echoing” rips and roars with the same spirit of the best KoL songs, quite literally “waiting on a memory” as Followill shouts the refrain. Highlight “Golden Restless Age” races back through time, with burgeoning brass and seductive guitar lines that remind us of the band KoL once was.
But on their latest, KoL isn’t entirely done trying. On opener “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away?,” frontman Caleb Followill asks listeners to stick around for one more night as the band members start up the engines, slowly unfurling their instruments together over a spacious near six-minute runtime. “We’ve crystalized, it’s dawned on you/ You have the face of someone new,” he muses in a conversation that might be best had with himself. Follow-up track “The Bandit” is the album’s mission statement delivered with a fast-paced eagerness; here, KoL are searching for the authenticity they’ve lost on their path to stardom.
Too often, however, the album suffers from a lack of ambition, giving listeners little reason to stick around save for nostalgia points. Rather than finding a cohesive middle ground, the band takes two forms, rehashing its glory days with a nostalgic edge at one end and slipping into a sound that is uninteresting, uninspired and indistinguishable at the other. Despite its title, “Stormy Weather” is frustratingly mellow and sunny, another low-stakes KoL song that sounds like it was churned out for country-rock crossover radio. Frustratingly bland lines about climate change on the yawn-inducing “Claire & Eddie” dilute any real message the song had to the point of truism. “Fire’s gonna rage if people don’t change,” Followill warns in the chorus over yawning guitar with the wisdom of an oblivious dad. “Story so old, still so original.”
“Fairytale” ends When You See Yourself with a ballad, a sincere romantic turn that’s all high drama. Dedicated to Followill’s wife Lily Aldridge, it’s a suitable farewell to an album with nowhere else to look except toward the sunset. A sweet, but ironic conclusion for a band that returns with a yearning for evolution but opts instead for shadowplay.