Kings of Leon review, Can We Please Have Fun: The ‘Southern Strokes’ have dropped a lot of dead weight

A far cry from the beardy, beery bawling of previous years, ‘Can We Please Have Fun’ is surprisingly fresh and full of energy, says Helen Brown

Helen Brown
Friday 10 May 2024 06:00 BST
Having a ball: Kings of Leon in promotional photos for their new album
Having a ball: Kings of Leon in promotional photos for their new album (Press)

The soul doesn’t exactly leap at the prospect of a new Kings of Leon album. And the wheedling title, Can We Please Have Fun, didn’t spark hope either. I’ve caught a few sets by the “Southern Strokes” at a few festivals and been bored by the beardy, beery bawling and riffs that rev and spin without momentum, like tyres stuck in the mud.

They once gave me a second-hand laugh, when I passed a portaloo at V Festival and heard the man inside bawling “wooooa-ooh! My arse is on fiiiiii-re”. An experience that my friend John, who had been thrilled by a KoL gig in 2008, argues “pretty much sums up the band’s output since 2010”.

So it’s a happy surprise to find a fresh, shiny energy-driving CWPHF. The tunes are sparkier, tempos more varied and the sonic textures cheerier, as though the band were given a clean shave and a hot lemon-scented towel. So when frontman Caleb Followill asks on the spritely “Mustang” where you’re “a Mustang or a kitty?” it’s a lively challenge and not a slurred recrimination. It seems as though he wants to be both: powerful and playful.

In a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph, the three Followill brothers (who make up the band along with their cousin, Matt Followill) describe how the sudden death of their mother in 2021 brought them together and reignited their sense of purpose. Reading Julia Cameron’s 1992 book The Artist’s Way (also credited with inspiring Alicia Keys and Martin Scorsese) reminded them that creativity is supposed to be a pleasurable experience.

Fun and games: Album artwork for ‘Can We Please Have Fun’
Fun and games: Album artwork for ‘Can We Please Have Fun’ (Capitol Records via AP)

Hiring Kid Harpoon, best known for his work crafting the liquid retro sounds on albums by Harry Styles and Florence and the Machine, was another smart move. The Kid has a terrific knack for sharpening hooks and amping up the energy, without sacrificing the artist’s individuality.

Here, he helps the Followill clan reclaim the garage-door-rattling edge of 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak. The producer dials deeply into the twangy tension of “Ballerina Radio”, a dark, haunting tale of a lonely man eating from a can where Caleb acknowledges the masochism of tuning into the radio news. Harpoon’s ears also pick out the dry wood of Nathan’s drum sticks and the coiled metal in the vibrations of Jared’s bass on “Actual Daydream”. Space is given for a simple hook to breathe on “Split Screen”, a song which finds the band feeling for the edges of mid-life anxiety, clocking the “shadows”, “obligations”, “hyperventilations” and “revelations”. At times, Caleb sounds like Peter Gabriel.

There’s a rich, rubbery bounce to “Rainbow Ball” (which comes accessorised with a pretty string line); some funk-skip in the beat of “Nowhere to Run” and some buzzy punk distortion on “Nothing to Do”. The vibe does sludge out on “Hesitation Gen” where Caleb shouts over Matt’s squalling-by-numbers.

But they make up for it on the deliciously trippy closer, “Seen”, which drifts into strangely ambient synth territory at the three-minute mark. As a spooky little keyboard refrain plays out, you get the impression that the Nashville band have been set adrift in zero gravity. They really have dropped a lot of dead weight. What a relief!

‘Can We Please Have Fun’ is out now

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