Why is it that greatness is rarely repeatable? Whatever the medium, artists, musicians, authors, so often seem to get trapped in a steady march towards a mainstream audience, and for some reason that also means mediocrity. What is it about the interplay of artistic endeavour and capitalism/ mass markets that results in such a sad dumbing down? Literally sad, because the arts, if they do anything, strive to affect people in deeply personal ways, thus fans of course have the capacity to feel personally let down by an artist they may have previously deeply identified with, or idolised. One such example is the rise and fall of Kings of Leon, who with each new single and album release dig a little deeper into nafness. Without wishing to sound like a music snob, why does ‘more accessible’ necessarily have to mean ‘less interesting’? I’m prepared to back this up with evidence.
The song Sex On Fire (2008) won Kings of Leon a Grammy award, suggesting it was beloved by many. But it’s arguably a much less interesting song than their very first single, which deals with a similar subject matter, Holy Roller Novocaine (2003). Here, the opening bars are full of stealth: some misdemeanour is about to happen. The lyrics are a little more obscure and far more poetic. They take time and care building the song, and it oscillates nicely between a quiet sexy lyric and some properly loud sections of unleashed exuberance. It’s also a more subtle channeling of their Pentecostal training ground (syncopated hand-claps, slightly biblical vocabulary, touches of guilt and subversion). Sex On Fire (not leaving much to the imagination with that title) goes almost straight to 100% belting-out and hovers there for the rest of the song, the only alternations being whether it’s verse or chorus. If these songs were lovers, I know which one I’d pick for a bedtime playmate.
To an observer, it looks as though they have lazily resorted to easy stadium rock, and probably because they’ve learned it earns them money. What made their early material so engaging, and perhaps less immediately palatable, was the violence of youth it expressed. They didn’t necessarily want to be loved. This is reinforced by Caleb Followill’s highly distinctive voice: surprisingly jaded, world-weary, mumbling at times, angry at others. Perhaps a tad naive, but also brilliant: the vitriol of young men. Accordingly, their first album was entitled ‘Youth and Young Manhood’. With growing older they have, only naturally, lost that edge, but without finding anything quite as good to replace it. They may be more polished, but they just seem lost.
Die-hard fans with a less critical ear may claim ‘it’s just progression’ (scroll down here from some particularly inarticulate defensiveness). It’s not inevitable though; ‘progression’ could be in any number of directions, and it’s hard to believe that whatever impetus drives them now is the same creative impetus that got them making music in the first place. If their output is a reflection of the course of their own lives, the grubby southern-fried backwater, prostitutes, brawls and young lust do of course make more unusual, if simply shocking, material than the calmness of maturity. If they now want to write songs about being in love and having meaningful sex in a long term relationship, and rediscovering their roots, that’s not necessarily a problem: but the way in which they’ve done it seems trite. It’s somehow less sincere, a less truthful investigation of their own motivations, than their youthful gusto.
I think Kings of Leon might know this, and it’s manifest in their new single, Radioactive – apparently written before their last two albums. In terms of subject matter, this sounds like an apology to their grandmother. Musically, there is some hope in the opening bars, but it’s quickly dashed by the earnestness of the main riff, and only two lines of lyric before they break into the crowd-pleasing chorus line. Again, peaked too soon. Ultimately, any rock band that has to resort to a backing choir must realise they’ve gone wrong somewhere, even if they are trying to get back to their gospel roots: literally using a gospel choir doesn’t seem a very sophisticated attempt. However, the music video is by far the most embarrassing thing about the song, which you can judge for yourself here. It’s not terrible – but the whole effort seems both musically lazy and conceptually strained. Which brings me back to my initial point – there was a natural genius in their early material, from which, with each renewed attempt to return, they’re only moving further away.