In the midst of the sort of silly Beatles-on-iTunes blogosphere backlash (the essence of which was a whole bunch of jokes about how the bloggerati “didn’t know where to get the Beatles’s music until now! Thanks, Apple!”), Nitsuh Abebe, for New York Magazine
’s “Vulture” segment (essentially a catch-all for musings on modern pop culture), wrote an interesting piece called “How to Hate the Beatles”. The bulk of the article is, though often insightful and funny, a pretty frivolous list with steps like “Pick the right Beatles song to begrudgingly enjoy” and “Don’t know too much about the Beatles”. The introduction to the piece, however, contains an extremely penetrating, if brief, observation on the nature of “hate” and the often contrarian thought processes that lead to it, with Abebe commenting, “if you happen to be, like most people, more or less indifferent to them [The Beatles], I can understand the temptation to develop an active hatred, just because it's a lot more interesting than not caring either way. It suggests boldness, passion, and critical thinking on your part, you know?”. Now, comparing modern arena-rock moguls Kings of Leon (or just about any modern band, for that matter) to the Beatles is risky business, but the same sort of mentality seems to be dictating the haters’ decisions to, well, hate. Because, really: how many people are actually
offended by Kings of Leon?
Whatever the number is, it’s a lot higher than it should be, and the reason lies in a simple aspect of human behavior: would you rather, when presented with a lukewarm band by an overenthusiastic friend, tell that friend you think he's getting a little too hyped up about the band because you, I don’t know, don’t think they're that great
, or shove it in his face by first expressing sheer dislike towards the band and then expounding every ***ty element of it? Now, I know this line of question is a bit of a risky move on my part; after all, I’m essentially categorizing KoL-haters both as people who are lying to themselves about the music they dislike and also as people who are sort of jerks to their friends. Which they’re not (well, not all of them), but it’s undeniable that this is the type of thinking that converts the masses from simple, harmless indifference to no-holds-barred abhorrence; from a platonic relationship with pleasant radio-rock like “Use Somebody” to gratuitous 3.8/10 ratings for Only by the Night
I touch upon all of this (most of which is applicable to just about any band that receives a significant level of hate in music criticism circles--especially those on the internet) for a reason that should probably be pretty obvious by now: Kings of Leon aren’t all that bad. In fact, they can actually be really
good. Not in that “pretty good, for mainstream music” or “not bad, compared to the majority of dumb Southern rock” way, but, like, straight-up Really Good. I find it hard to believe that most of you out there, emptying yourselves of any prejudice, wouldn’t enjoy or even love the huge chorus of the excellent “Pyro,” which hits the same pleasure points as something like The National’s “Terrible Love”. It’s the type of song that does its job so well that it makes you think about how maybe the reason “arena rock” (now pretty much a universally negative term in criticism) is such a popular trend on mainstream radio is that it has the potential to totally awesome. “Pyro” is, indeed, totally awesome; a song that bursts through all of the restrictive stereotypes of its genre to reveal itself as something totally inspiring. I may not know what the central lyric, “I won’t ever be your cornerstone,” means, but that won’t stop me from singing it out at the top of my lungs.
For the most part, that’s where Kings of Leon’s most recent effort, Come Around Sundown
, focuses its attention. Big production, big vocals, big hooks, big choruses: big
. Kings of Leon simply do big well, putting to rest the common misconception that magnitude and discipline have an inverse relationship in songwriting. The band fires on all cylinders here, meticulously polishing every aspect of their music, from Jared Followill’s consistently excellent basslines to brother Caleb’s pained, gruff vocals to the often innovative percussion--though overproduced this is not. In fact, the band’s attention to detail is precisely what allows them to surprise us, and often. “Back Down South,” with its twang-y guitars and fiddles and lyrics about, you know, Going Back Down South, should probably be just an annoying retread of yee-haw Kid Rock-esque Southern fetishism (no offense to any who may live down there), but instead it’s wistful yet celebratory in that very universal way; the way that makes us all hold hands and sing even if we have no idea what that “good ol’ life” is like. “Beach Side” is uncharacteristically lush and almost tropical, one-upping some of the more jammy bands this side of the decade (dare I say Local Natives?). Though Kings of Leon still have their distinctively rough-edged style, they’ve subtly and masterfully included more variety from a wide range of influences; certainly more than enough to convince any levelheaded listener who may have previously approached the band with a little skepticism.
Though I know it’s become the reigning champion of cliches, the best advice I can give to any of those still unconvinced is to listen to Come Around Sundown
listen to it. Feel the rocketing rhythms of “Mary”. Pay attention to the propulsive bassline of “Radioactive”. Close your eyes and let the tangible yearning of “Back Down South” overcome you. Now, think for a second: is this really a band worth hating?