Kings of Leon have been gradually drifting away from their original garage rock sound to alternative rock for years and on this eighth studio album, arriving five years after its predecessor, they're easily at the safest sound they've reached yet. However, even though these songs are so laid back that all the urgency of an early single like Red Morning Light is forgotten, they do tend to find the grooves they seem to be looking for, even if they're softer ones without any sharp edges. When Caleb Followill asks us to "come a little closer, closer now to the edge" on Time in Disguise, the irony is biting.
The question that constantly comes back to mind here is whether those grooves are engaging enough to draw us in to explore what's going on in a particular song or so underplayed that we drift away for a while. And while even having to ask that question surely says a lot all on its own, there are plenty of both of those categories here.
The earliest songs, as subtle as they often are, did grab my attention. I dug the opener, When You See Yourself, are You Far Away, because it starts so softly and inoffensively but gradually adds layers until it's quite a complex thing. It's rather like pop-era Peter Gabriel singing for a new wave outfit who are mysteriously without much budget for electronics and it's a great way to kick off an album. I liked it a bit more than the opening pair of singles, The Bandit and 100,000 People, and a lot more than most of the songs here.
The Bandit is probably the most overt song anywhere to be found here, with the possible exception of Echoing, and it also hearkens back to indie music from the eighties and maybe nineties too. Taking a different approach, 100,000 People reminded me of a stripped down Bruce Springsteen, perhaps doing a cover of one of his wife Patti Scialfa's singer-songwriter songs. It's my favourite song here, after the opener which is a step above. These are good songs.
But then the next few didn't do much for me at all and I kept forgetting that they were even playing. I won't say that they're boring, because when I paid attention on a second listen I was rewarded, but I'd suggest that they easily become ambient noise, like songs on whatever inoffensive radio station is on in the background at the dentist's while you're concentrating on not feeling pain during a root canal. That especially begins with A Wave and continues through Golden Restless Age and on throughout.
And here's where you have a decision to make. If you stop doing everything else and concentrate on a song, it sounds good but we can't help but feel that it's bad for us anyway. It may be the safest album to put on in the background at a party that I've ever heard. It's feels like it's been designed to be the definition of inoffensive and it succeeds so well that our brains revolt at the concept. So do you want in? Do ya?
For instance, there's an organic pulse to Supermarket that feels like someone took the entire output of Joy Division, filtered it through algorithms to become one definitive song, shifted it into a happy key and applied an entire bottle of the digital equivalent of fabric softener to make it soft and fluffy. It's really hard to not like it, but you have to concentrate to even notice it and it leaves us with mixed feelings. Are we supposed to be happy or depressed? Is this really the soundtrack of our lives? Is this muzak conjured up a mad hacker who slipped something into it that's subversive and our subconcious knows it but hasn't convinced us yet? Is it an impeccably crafted musical drug?
I wonder what I'll feel if I come back to this album in a couple of weeks. I'm wondering if I'll remember that it exists. Wasn't I dreaming? But with that Joy Division trick repeated on other songs with Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed and other iconic musicians, maybe it's all I'll remember because two listens was enough for it to take over my brain like a parasite and own my thoughts.