Not many bands attract the level of ire that Kings of Leon do. Initially a bluesy, whiskey-soaked rock band, the band’s fourth album, Only by the Night saw them embark on a journey that hits all of the “selling out” beats that rock n’ roll fans love to hate. Their bluesy sound was traded in for arena-grandeur by way of U2, and they saw massive, 2x Platinum success for it. Singles like Sex on Fire and Use Somebody were hugely successful, even though they caused a lot of the band’s original fans to sour on them. The band pivoted away from that sound somewhat with subsequent albums Come Around Sundown and Mechanical Bull, but they sold a fraction of the records that Only by the Night did, so WALLS does a double-pivot right back to the arena rock of their biggest album. Unfortunately, it suffers from all the same problems and more.
No matter your opinions on Only by the Night, it’s hard to deny that it was at least a fun rock album. In spite of its many content flaws (17 is literally all about having sex with an underage girl), it’s never boring. WALLS, on the other hand, doesn’t quite manage that. The first 3 tracks are all passable U2 rip-offs, with big “whoa-oh-oh” choruses and echoing guitars fit for arenas (Waste a Moment is actually pretty great, and sticks in the head like glue), but the album quickly devolves into a slog of ballads free of tangible emotion or hooks.
Find Me is a pretty typical mid-tempo number, which resorts to choral samples to disguise the fact that it doesn’t really have a central melody. Over is a 6-minute long haze of somber chords and vocals that seem to try to imitate Interpol, but without their magnetic darkness, and as such, the track just seems to go on forever. Muchacho is kind of interesting, if only because it’s more intimate than the rest of the album, but it still feels like more of a pastiche than an actual song. Conversation Piece is a run of clichés over a formless guitar – “take me back to California / to those crystal neon signs”. There are some interesting touches in the production, with synthesised-sounding strings entering the mix, but they can’t save the song from it’d tar-slow pace, and vapid lyrics.
Things pick up a little bit with Wild, which is actually pretty fun, since the tempo finally picks up somewhat, but Kings of Leon can’t help but end the album with a disappointing thud. The title track and closer is a sappy mess of overbearing piano and synth sweeps, propping up a ballad that’s barely there, with “deep” lyrics like “a man ain’t a man unless he’s fought the fight”. WALLS never threatens to be particularly artful, or even good in the traditional sense, but it does show the potential for fun, which makes it doubly frustrating when the band squanders it.