Kings of Leon have taken a lot of (arguably well-earned) flack over the years, but criticism aside, the Nashville family quartet was modern rock’s last great act.
On this day in 2008, “Sex On Fire” debuted at number one on the UK singles chart, where the band had reigned supreme long before receiving any stateside recognition. But soon that would all change. “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” off Only by The Night catapulted the band to stardom. Both tracks’ howling choruses and rhythmic garage rock aesthetic placed them along the other kitschy indie hits that defined 2008, such as The Killers’s “Mr. Brightside” and Arctic Monkeys’s “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.”
The band was already an indie commercial darling, but Only by the Night mutated Kings of Leon into a different kind of beast. With their “whoa-oh” singalongs and sleek production, the band purposefully trimmed their garage hedges in favor of a more crisp and refined aesthetic. They had chosen to be a pop crossover hit in a deliberately calculated way.
Subsequently, accusations of Maroon 5-level selling out mounted against the group and have since trailed them for years. The band was even forced to acknowledge the persistent allegations, and post-2008 fans would only come to their shows for the “Whoa-oh’s!” “We hope you guys warm-up,” lead singer Caleb Followill told the very bored Reading Festival crowd in 2009 after most of the audience restocked on beer during the band’s set. “I know it was cold, but holy sh*, y’all were frozen,” the band’s drummer tweeted afterward.
Kings Of Leon – Pyro (Official Music Video)
Today, the band has failed to produce another hit the size of “Sex On Fire,” and every attempt at one has seemed disingenuous. “What even is this band?” wrote Pitchfork of their most recent effort, WALLS. Criticism of the band’s frayed relationship and sub-par work has been relentless.
But in hindsight, what did Followill and fam ever really do wrong as a band besides write a few cringe refrains?
While 2010’s Come Around Sundown was undoubtedly lukewarm when held up against the magnitude of its predecessor, critics were divided on whether the album deserved any love at all, sprinkling awkward modicums of praise in between searing criticism.
Rolling Stone praised the album and cited the band as potentially another U2. But Pitchfork tore it to shreds, calling the band “emotionally bankrupt,” despite agreeing that they were rhythmically compelling. They also tipped their hat to “Radioactive” but stopped short of praise because the remix featured a gospel chorus. “It’s a stately modern rock album that’s so desperate to prove its own authenticity it forgets to be remotely moving,” wrote NME in their review, yet they praised the band’s “shimmering” guitars and knack for “conjuring sonic drama from the simplest of ingredients.”
But when compared to the recycled emotionalism of most of 2010’s rock music, was Come Around Sundown really that bad? “The Immortals,” with its bellowing chorus and warm rhythmic guitars, is undeniably nice on the ears, and “Pyro” is a far lusher power ballad than “Revelry” ever was.
Kings Of Leon – Supersoaker (Official Music Video)
Kings of Leon’s next release, 2013’s Mechanical Bull, was sonically grittier and even more of a return-to-form than Come Around Sundown was supposed to be. But the album was, once again, criticized for merely falling short of unrealistic expectations. NME’s review cited a fair amount of “brilliant” moments in songs like “Don’t Matter” and “Family Tree” and called “Temple” “the best thing they’ve written in five years,” but ultimately panned the project. Other publications offered similar backhanded compliments. Regardless, the project was still nominated for Best Rock Album. In fact, the band’s music on its own has always stood pretty tall, and it’s hard to justify the relentless hate poured onto every KoL song post-2008–even if the artists behind them are inherently problematic.
On 2016’s WALLS, the band seemingly accepted their fate and fully abandoned their grizzly rocker charm in favor of soaring pop songs, which have now redefined their career. These songs, like other KoL offerings over the years, were objectively compelling but still completely unwelcomed.
It’s true that “Waste a Moment” really tried to be “Sex On Fire Pt. 2,” but with 2016 being a heartbreaking year of political carnage, harkening back to the simplistic sound of 2010 pop ballads felt more nostalgic than annoying—though tracks like “Over” and “Eyes On You” were absolute earworms.
Ultimately, Kings of Leon is the type of band that’s truly easy to criticize. They went from being a buzzing indie band pegged as a “Southern Strokes” to a face-value commercial rock act, and that drastic transition’s understandably left a lot of people bitter. Any search for deeper meaning in their newer records remains fruitless, and Followill’s alcoholism and off-putting misogyny definitely hasn’t aged well. The group’s antics may not survive modern-day cancel culture, but every time a KoL song comes on the radio, it remains impossible not to at least tune in.