Arena rock is by necessity built on big gestures. How else do you reach that sea of people crowding into the arena, or amphitheater, or whatever? The trouble with big gestures, though, is how easily they can come to feel hollow instead. As Kings of Leon have grown into an arena-sized band, the foursome has crossed back and forth over that line and their new album, When You See Yourself, is no exception.
The three Followill brothers and their cousin are certainly capable of big gestures. That’s what elevated them from the scrum of scruffy indie bands in the early 2000s to chart-topping superstars who have sold north of 20 million albums worldwide. As their audience has grown, the group’s music has become more grandiose on songs built around big hooks seemingly designed to reach the last row of seats. Yet big is not the same as memorable, and Kings of Leon’s albums have become increasingly bland as they have come to rely more and more heavily on formula.
It’s most apparent in the band’s singles, which have lately followed one of three models. There’s the bombastic one with big guitar riffs and a propulsive beat, represented here by “The Bandit.” Taut guitar gallops over a clattering rhythm while Caleb Followill sings with gruff urgency andas the song builds to a resonating chorus. In form and effect, it’s a lot like “Waste a Moment,” from 2016’s WALLS, or “Supersoaker” from 2013’s Mechanical Bull.
Then there’s the soaring ballad, full of moody instrumentation and simmering angst. On When You See Yourself, that one is “100,000 People,” with its lightly pulsing bassline, atmospheric synths and Followill’s lovelorn quest to find one crisply defined constant in a blurry world. It follows the same template as “Wait for Me” on Mechanical Bull, or “Reverend” on WALLS.
The third single model is the playful one, which can sound effervescent and loose, like the band was just hanging out and having a good time when, hey, look, a fun jam—let’s put it on the record. Kings of Leon have only released two singles so far from When You See Yourself, but if past predicts future, the next one could be “Echoing,” which is powered by huge guitars and a thrumming rhythm. Then again, maybe the band will want to change things up, in which case they might go with “Time in Disguise,” with its soul-searching vibe, or maybe “Stormy Weather,” which has a syncopated beat and synthesizers intertwined with guitars, topped with Followill’s distinctive yowling voice and inscrutable lyrics.
Whatever they choose, it won’t stand out much from anything else they’ve done lately. It’s not that these songs aren’t catchy, it’s that they’re unremarkable. They’re perfectly pleasant to listen to, they’ll surely be fun to sing post-pandemic when the band comes to an arena near you, and when they’re over, it’s the riff from “Black Thumbnail” or melody from “Use Somebody” that lingers in your head. It’s the tradeoff Kings of Leon have made: As they’ve grown bigger, their songs have become increasingly interchangeable, and while that’s made for a certain measure of consistency, it’s anything but exciting.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.