Somewhere around 2008, Kings Of Leon forgot how to have fun. Their first two albums were gin-soaked bar stompers that admirably walked the line between feral adolescent heartache and charismatic backwoods parody, with 2007’s Because Of The Times perfectly capturing the bittersweet celebration found in the band’s colorful pasts. But their fourth album, Only By The Night, saw the Followill clan growing gloomy, drowning everything in sluggish, new wave reverb, tossing out vaguely tortured lyrics that were about as detailed as the poetry scribbled in an angsty eighth grader’s Trapper Keeper, circa 1994.
Come Around Sundown is a follow-up in every sense of the word: Opener “The End” pretty much sounds like a slightly faster “Closer”, the lead-in track from Only By The Night. The effort does have a dash more gunpowder and meatier subject matter, however. Lead guitarist Matthew still apes The Edge as he did on the last record, nearly sinking “Closer” and other moody tracks, such as “The Face” and “Pickup Truck”, but there are a handful of tunes to love here, most of them genre dabbling rockers that find the Kings at their most playful.
“Mary” hooks the listener with yearning doo wop vocal styling and woozy, muffled saxophone, painting a black and white photo of the band as the drunken house act for a 1950’s prom. “Back Down South” delves into their Appalachian roots, its slide guitar, sylvan fiddle, and gospel backing vocals making it the most sincerely country song of their career. Frontman Caleb thankfully relies more on images here than the generalized feelings of their last outing, his gothic portraits of curly haired girls in coffins resonating as something both tragic and beautiful. “Pyro” features similarly morbid yet tender subject matter, a heart-wrenching (albeit foot tapping) character sketch of a firebug family man about to torch everything around him.
“No Money” is a cry back to the band’s younger days, a torn rebel yell for small town escape, tricked out with fuzz bass and the album’s sole raw guitar solo, devoid of cavernous echo or any other atmospheric tricks. It also features Caleb’s most impassioned vocal performance on the record. It’s doubtful we’ll ever hear him as wonderfully unhinged and slobbering as he was on Aha Shake Heartbreak, but “No Money” shows him off at his loosest, a welcome middle ground of hesitant maturity.
The album’s strongest track is the lead single, “Radioactive”, a rapid fire take on the origin of man with a chorus ready-made for the stadiums the bandmates have found themselves in over the past few years. “It’s in the water, it’s in the story, it’s where you came from,” shouts Caleb in a Sunday school yelp that recalls the brothers’ religious upbringing. While Come Around Sundown may not be enough to convert their former fans back to their original dogma, it will at least get them through the church doors.