After emerging from the backwoods with Youth & Young Manhood in 2003, Kings of Leon was rightly labeled a “Southern Strokes.” Both bands’ songs were brief but complete encapsulations of their particular scene; both borrowed liberally from the simplest practices of garage rock, and both bands’ careers — infectious and trendy as both their songs and looks were — could have easily ended after their first album. But in 2003 the Strokes were already on their second album and quickly, but to declining hype, maturing.
Because of the Times is Kings of Leon’s turn at maturity, without any of the pretentiousness that customarily surrounds that label. The Strokes avoided the Listen to me, I’m all grown up album, and so have the members of Kings of Leon. They haven’t ditched the two-minute blasts of furious, Southern-crunch guitar rock that made 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak such a promising follow-up to their debut. But just as the Strokes’ sound expanded — perhaps to fill the larger venues popularity brought them — Kings of Leon certainly has grown up, and songs like “Black Thumbnail,” and “Fans,” mimic this growth not in volume or length, but in texture. The swagger stays but now there’s smarts behind it.
The band’s Southern credence tends to result, justifiably, from Caleb Followill’s often unintelligible but enticing voice, much of the success of Times belongs to the precise connection and creativity of his brothers, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan (cousin Matthew handles lead guitar). “King of the Rodeo” and “Razz” saw them add a syncopation and fluidity to the otherwise straightforward rock stomp of Aha Shake Heartbreak. Because of the Times is not Aha Shake Heartbreak part two; rather, it knows what worked from that album, and expands on it.
From those rhythmic starting points, new songs like “Fans” and the standout “Ragoo,” see the Followills take the reins off traditional garage rock, yet never obfuscating the simple heart in the relative rhythm complexity. (It’s not prog-rock, but it’s enough to set them apart.) “McFearless” is the most rhythmically ambitious song, with a frenetic over-the-bar drum pattern and Matthew’s lead guitar creating a sonic swirl; sure, the band toured with U2, but the music’s still got something distinctly original to it, an energy the musicians themselves own. Even on “Arizona,” one of two ballads in the vein of Shake‘s “Rememo,” a well-placed tambourine atop a spacious but prominent bass line in the verse gives listeners something distinct to hold on to.
The missteps are minimal here: First single “On Call” awkwardly announces a new direction, all cool rhythm but no soul. And “Charmer” is the one unfortunate reminder that Caleb’s voice is indeed a very particular instrument. But to that end, it’s not his lyrics — I’m lost without liner notes — but his understanding of how to sing them that makes Because of the Times so enjoyable. I don’t always know what he’s saying in “Fans” or “Black Thumbnail,” and neither will you, but I’m instantly able to hum the rhythm of his lyrics. He uses his voice as an instrument, and its cadences, especially in “True Love Way,” and “Fans,” are like those of the most revered singers, as important and memorable as the words.
Kings of Leon has toured with Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam, and you’ll hear the effects in the way the musicians find the core of each song and exploit it to the benefit of the largest audiences. And U2’s outsized ambition rubbed off in the most positive way: the songs are bigger here not because of individual pomposity but because the band is better. Kind of like the Strokes — which, oh yeah, Kings of Leon also toured with.