On their 2010 song “The Immortals,” Kings of Leon aren’t referring to vampires or some other variety of death defiers. Frontman and principal songwriter Caleb Followill is actually singing about the opposite of immortality on this triumphant Come Around Sundown cut. Life is short, and in order to fully relish all its possibilities, we’re bound to spend time grasping wildly at experiences before deciphering the most important among them.
Followill wrote the song for his and wife Lily Aldridge’s future children, Dixie Pearl and Winston Roy. “Spill out on streets of stars / And ride away,” he urges during the chorus. “Find out what you are / Face to face.” It’s a blaring alt-rock track that at worst, may sound falsely hopeful. But when taking into account that its message is one of self-discovery and joy to young children with their whole lives ahead of them, it may be one of the best choruses Followill has ever written. Not to mention this most important line from the end of the song: “Don’t forget to love / before you’re gone.”
Come Around Sundown, the band’s fifth studio album which turned 10 yesterday (Oct. 19), was panned by critics for sounding “pandering,” “gloomy” and altogether self-absorbed (in Pitchfork’s terms, a perpetuation of “victimhood”). Following four sweltering, drunken, beautifully messy rock albums, the most recent of which was the superstar-making Only By The Night, Come Around Sundown was the sound of KoL going soft. The Followills themselves weren’t doing much to help their reputation, either: It was during this era that Caleb infamously left the stage drunk during a show and never returned—the rest of the tour was later canceled. You can hardly blame critics for chastising what, to their ears, sounded like a muddy, whiny, half-assed attempt at becoming Americana singers and a precursor to sad, washed-up rock stardom. But, in hindsight, a dedicated listen and a little research will tell you it’s anything but. Come Around Sundown isn’t seared with that angry rock ‘n’ roll arrogance KoL pursued on Youth And Young Manhood or the sad boi screams of Aha Shake Heartbreak. But it may just say more about Kings of Leon and what they’re all about than any of their early favorites.
Remember where the Followills are from. Brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill split their childhoods between Oklahoma and Tennessee, while their cousin Matthew Followill was raised in Mississippi. The trio of brothers traversed the Bible Belt with their Pentecostal preacher father, who staged revivals in various locations across the Deep South and remained committed to a simple, static lifestyle. According to the Showtime documentary Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, the children were taught that popular music—including rock ‘n’ roll—and TV were the works of Satan. So, in turn, the formation of Kings of Leon, one of the most riotous bands of the early 2000s, was a case of good ol’ fashioned backlash—a severe overcorrection for the boys’ stifled, southern youths. Their story is so narratively sound it could’ve been a subplot in Almost Famous.
In the early days of Kings of Leon, critics fully bought in to this story while the band made album after album of resonant southern rock that ranged from thrashing (see classics like “Molly’s Chambers”) to more thoughtful and subtle (“The Runner,” a softer song from Because Of The Times, is a melancholy lullaby more than anything, but nevertheless twangy and clanging) before infiltrating the world’s radios and TVs with hits like “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire”—songs that many early fans probably consider the end of their artistic careers, for all intents and purposes. Complete with fiddles and more tender songs like “The Immortals,” Come Around Sundown was a shot fired straight into left field. But it’s important to note that Sundown was the result of KoL’s reckoning with their southern upbringings in a whole new way—finding peace with not only their geographical positions, but also any leftover bitterness towards their strange childhoods and complicated family. It’s what came after hard lessons learned.
Sundown begins on a rather dreary note with “The End,” a search for authenticity in a touring life addled with fake people and temporary fixes (I know—the “playing victim” criticism doesn’t feel too far off now). But things only brighten from there. On radio rocker “Radioactive” (not to be confused with the so-much-worse song by Imagine Dragons of the same name), the Followills appropriate an old gospel tune from their childhoods into an exploration of their own origin stories (“It’s in the water, it’s where you came from”) with a distinctly spiritual edge. “After my grandma sees this video, she definitely doesn’t think we’re going to hell as fast as she did think we were going,” Nathan remarks in a behind-the-scenes look at the song’s music video. It’s the sound of KoL growing up, and also approaching their religious childhoods with a proper mix of humor and respect. Then there’s the slow-burning “Pyro” which, admittedly, sounds like Caleb trying to shirk responsibility in a relationship (“I won’t ever be your cornerstone,” he repeats over and over). But heard in the context of his parents’ divorce, which was reportedly brought on by his father’s alcoholism, it’s an affecting retelling of a family tragedy. Later, “Pickup Truck” is a frivolous flaunting of toxic masculinity and a recounting of a bar brawl. It’s not a good look, but it’s also so damn on-brand—it’s kind of difficult not to enjoy it. They make up for being assholes on highlight “Birthday,” where Caleb vows to make his partner (presumably then-girlfriend Aldridge) feel so special it’s like her “birthday” every day and alludes to—ahem—sex that’s enjoyable for all involved.
“Back Down South,” however, is this album’s thesis statement. If Come Around Sundown is about Kings of Leon going back to their roots, “Back Down South” is both the light and dark side of those beginnings. It’s a campfire song, as displayed by the rustic music video, and it’s a soundtrack to people gathering—the actualization of community, which is of the utmost importance in southern life. Kings of Leon aren’t country singers—but they do come from the country, from backwoods and dirt roads and small, smelly chapels in the middle of nowhere where the cicadas are louder than the sermon itself. With its melodic slide guitar and tinny fiddles, “Back Down South” is the literal sound of what it feels like to come home to The South, even if it’s a little painful sometimes.
Kings of Leon have certainly had their share of problems, and their discography is a bumpy ride to say the least. But Come Around Sundown doesn’t deserve all the hate that’s been thrown at it over the years. Ten years later, it’s much less an unfortunate follow-up to their best-seller and much more an appreciation of Kings of Leon’s past—even with all its faults. Whether or not the Followills will release anything worthy of our attention ever again is unclear. But should you ever decide to reevaluate the music they’ve already unleashed into the world, don’t discount Sundown. Imperfect as it is, it’s a reminder that our pasts only have as much power over us as we allow. And the future is a wide, open road.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.