The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



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22 comments
ludwitr
ludwitr

as you promote the shit out of them --->>

dumbasses....

Jenna Agata
Jenna Agata

They lost inspiration. For many, once you reach that sort of fame, there's nothing more to strive for.

John Mead
John Mead

This is your story? They were good until they got popular? Are you twelve?

cags777
cags777

This band is like Nickelback - only they sound whiny.  Why are they popular?

helmmatthews
helmmatthews

It's par for the course to attack a critic who rips your favorite band. I've never been very keen on these guys. A bit of a bore, actually.

mbpeterson19
mbpeterson19

How do you forgo the band's break out album when ripping apart their discography?

Emily Anfinson
Emily Anfinson

I think it was the haircuts...after the haircuts they were never the same.

PhatBoi Phresh
PhatBoi Phresh

cause they werent that good. theyre like anyother artist in todays music. they have a popular song or album and thats all they ever had going for them

Wes Truett
Wes Truett

Rock and roll critics are much more pathetic. Not a shred of talent evident in one line of this opinion.

brill029
brill029

TL;DR: Band that sucks is immensely popular. 

Charles Hopper
Charles Hopper

Erik Thompson, you do good work. Most of the time. I really appreciate all of the work you do for local music and I read Gimme Noise regularly and will continue to read Gimme Noise. However. Why write this? Kings of Leon is one of the biggest bands in the world. Is having success really something to be ashamed of? They have sold millions of records because their music is good. I understand the frustration you might have with pop music and big time record label success. I have many of the same frustrations (I work for local bands looking for their shot, bands that are really good but have flown under the radar because there is so much competition) but to totally lambast a band that got their shot years ago and has written some really good music just because they are popular is a bit confusing to me. Hate them in private. Don't use this forum to run there faces through the dirt. Again, I really appreciate the work you do but this one just threw me for a loop.

Lauren Clauer
Lauren Clauer

Why is it bad music when it's popular? I don't get that

James Erhardt
James Erhardt

I completely agree with this article. All types of bands are accused of 'selling out', but KoL is the epitome of the term 'sell out'. I went from loving their first album to quickly changing the channel/station in disgust when a new song from subsequent albums came on.

Josh Peterson
Josh Peterson

I have to wonder if this article is actually a satirical piece of click bait.

Joseph M. Adams
Joseph M. Adams

Their hit album was "Only By the Night," which you fail to mention. This is likely the most poorly-researched, lazy writing I've ever read (and I teach High School English). I agree that their arena performances have been lackluster, but do you even like music?

Chris Beattie
Chris Beattie

they always where over rated...but at leats they aint Bumford and Sons

Adron Lamb
Adron Lamb

Uh well, they went corporate, got stylists and let themselves be controlled by nerds in a boardroom for money. Duh

george2600
george2600

Geez, who put sand in your vagina?

trueRocker01
trueRocker01

"Is having success really somthing to be ashamed of?" No success is not bad, whats bad is that there quality of music had declined. They were really amazing hardrocked band who changed their sound to a more mainstream pop style rock band. They have a good new sound (which all new listeners like), but its not the king of leon that they use to be.That is what the writer of this article is writing about. I absolutely agree with him.


pistol_of_Fire
pistol_of_Fire

Popular is not bad. What the author is saying that they sacrificed their original style of music for a more mainstream pop rock style. Their original style was this hard rocking southern garage style, which was simply amazing.

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