Kings Of Leon Serve Their Sound at the Right Temperature on Can We Please Have Fun

The family band sound their best in years on a punchy new album of beachside Southern rock.

Music Reviews Kings of Leon
Kings Of Leon Serve Their Sound at the Right Temperature on Can We Please Have Fun

Kings of Leon are unafraid of embarrassing themselves. Their band mantra may as well be “just go for it,” and this strategy has yielded some very fun rock music over the last quarter-century. Only a truly unashamed artist could turn “Hot as a fever / Rattling bones…your sex is on fire” into a hit heard ‘round the world; or successfully make a song about erectile dysfunction sound thoughtful…and steamy; or so earnestly honor their Tennessee roots with a take on “Dixieland Delight,” pouring out lines like “I’ve got something here / If you give me one more beer,” without sounding totally corny and out-of-touch; or pass off “I’ll walk a mile in your shoes / And now I’m a mile away / And I’ve got your shoes” as a chorus.

But this approach has also resulted in a few stinkers over the years (when some late twentysomethings sang about a 17-year-old, for one), and an uneven reputation among rock purists. On the band’s ninth full-length album, Can We Please Have Fun, though, the Followill brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared and their cousin Matthew have mixed the right cocktail of their original rowdy sound and zany lyrics topped with clean production. Like the best tracks from their 25-year career, it’s neither high-brow nor low-brow. And if the only bar is the one they set for themselves, then Can We Please Have Fun clears it on just about every level.

After their initial come-up amid the early 2000s indie rock scene—and infamous characterization as the “Southern Strokes”—they popped out the aforementioned “Sex on Fire” and a handful of other adult radio hits and were promptly slapped with a big red “sellout” label. They’ve still been cranking out a steady supply of melodic southern rock ever since, finding more success in the U.K. than at home, but anyone who isn’t a fan—i.e., anyone who doesn’t have a built-in appreciation for their off-kilter lyrics and Caleb Followill’s distinct caterwauling—probably interpreted this trajectory as a slow nosedive.

But on Can We Please Have Fun, those goofy lyrics that have so often doomed Kings of Leon to middling critic reviews are a crucial reason why this album floats down to Earth instead of landing with a thud. On “Mustang,” the clamorous lead single, Caleb Followill inquires to no one in particular, “Are you a mustang or a kitty? / What are you all about?” before observing in the third verse, “I saw ‘em operating on the kid downstairs / I could not be bothered to pretend to care.” After a hard look at the lyric sheet, you could safely interpret the song along the same lines as Wilco’s “Love Is Everywhere”—both a modern-day warning to not be fooled by reactionary unity and a call to celebrate the little jubilees all around—but let’s be honest: It’s ultimately nonsensical. And that’s not just OK—it’s part of Kings of Leon’s DNA. If you’re looking for tidy metaphors, you’ve got the wrong band.

If it’s a brew of briny bass lines and funky dumb melodies that you seek, however, you’re seated at the right bar. Perhaps these tracks aren’t revelatory, but they’re worth reveling in. There’s a range of flavors: synthy pop ballads, charred post-punk and wistful slow burns. On “Split Screen,” one of the best moments on the album that falls into the third category, Followill wades around a pool of midlife worries, but it doesn’t ring hollow like so many other late-career songwriters’ takes on the subject. Its companion in style “Ballerina Radio” starts out as a scratchy tune not unlike the folk-rock humdingers on 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak before stretching out into rhythmic electronica. The Followills then slip into Mechanical Bull territory on the catchy “Television,” and return to their frequent fascination with Southwestern twang on “Actual Daydream.”

But it’s single “Nothing To Do” that has all the best Kings of Leon qualities: playful, but never unserious; scorching guitars anchored by unwavering bass; pithy wordplay. “There’s a deer in the pool / And sperrys on the line / He’s looking for directions / Tell me is this your place or mine?” is a truly bonkers line if you try to understand it. So don’t. On the folk-rock spectrum, maybe Kings of Leon are a little more Kurt Vile than the Allman Brothers.

On Can We Please Have Fun, if Kings of Leon aren’t outright making fun of their cultural perception over the last decade or so, they are at least aware of it. But as the album’s title suggests, they are unbothered by what naysayers or reformed haters might think and are far more concerned with the pure energy of their own output. Kings of Leon are not the embarrassment so many music snobs want them to be. They’ve been here through decades of shifting pop culture and musical tastes, and they still have a singular style. Who else today is writing lyrics like “Sunday supper from a can / Ravioli and plastic parmesan / Fish are in the tank / Having quite a think” and not sounding like fools? They didn’t record these songs because of label pressure, in search of a quick payout or to impress anyone. It’s obvious that they made Can We Please Have Fun with only one thing in mind: creating for the thrill of it. And as is the case with any piece of art that anyone—or you yourself— sets loose into the world, it’s only as serious as you take it.

Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a full-time editor and part-time writer. You can find her in Atlanta, or rewatching Little Women on Letterboxd.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin