Music Feature

This Is What Happens When You Break My Heart

Have you ever lost a band?

Not because of a break-up. Not because the drummer chokes on his own vomit. Not because of a personal shift in taste that renders fanhood a wee bit embarrassing. I'm talking about when a band leaves the nest, but forgets who taught it to fly. I'm talking about when a band swaps its old roots for a new high-rise, neglecting its gifts in favor of aligning with the highest price tag and the lowest common denominator. I'm talking about loving a band one moment and then loathing them the next.

I'm talking about when a band abandons you, jilted lover.

It has happened to me for the first time, and my coping mechanism shall be this open letter (perhaps more appropriately defined as a manifesto).

Dear Kings of Leon -

I always knew you were colossal douchebags. Even back in 2003, when my buddy Rob told me I just had to listen to your debut record, Youth and Young Manhood.

“I try to listen to the whole thing, but I just keep playing the first four songs over and over!” Rob told me, likely drooling into the phone receiver.

Rob is generally an idiot, but for once he was right. That record was a slash-and-burn forest fire gone wild, a lightning strike of pure sexual fury that entered through the ear drum and exited through the loins. So I forgave the backcountry mullets and the overwrought tales of a preacher father gone defrocked, for one simple reason: The songs. They were great.

When you released your second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, I was so damn enamored that my girlfriend bought an import copy of the record from Germany so that I wouldn't have to wait the extra three months to buy the goddamn thing in America. And I knew she was going to do it, too, so I didn't tell her that a friend of mine had dug it up online and sent me an illegal copy a couple of months before that. I hid that bootlegged copy in my sock drawer like a fucking porno, and she found it, just like a fucking porno. And we fought about it, just like it was a fucking porno. And she forgave me, for one simple reason: The songs were great.

I read every single one of your interviews back then. I can't imagine you'd remember one if I pinpointed it, since every fucking interview covered the exact same pair of topics: “We love to get drunk. Why aren't we more famous in America?” Stupid us, we wanted to help. So we told our friends about you. We did. We really tried. We went to your shows at tiny dives. We drove from Tucson to watch you play a free concert at a Scottsdale martini bar in 2006, the four of you prancing around the desert in your leotard-tight jeans.

So you put out a third record, cheekily titled Because of the Times. As lead vocalist Caleb Followill so cockily proclaimed (and I'm paraphrasing here), “If it's a hit, it's because of the times. If it bombs, it's because of the times.” It didn't really do either, but it certainly planted a seed of doubt in my belly. There were some fine moments for sure, but the whiff of desperation was nascent. For the first time, the songs just weren't all that great. It felt like the soundtrack to your familiar interview themes: “We love to get drunk. Why aren't we more famous?”

With your fourth album, Only By the Night, you finally got what you wanted. You finally condensed all of your tours with U2 and your insatiable thirst for American popularity and your Southern-fried whiskey fetish and your “shocking” haircuts/carefully plotted appointments with stylists into a bland, amorphous mess of an album that the bottom-of-the-barrel popular music crowd sopped up like a case of Natty Light. Congratu-fucking-lations. I'm not going to waste venom on that steaming pile, so let's keep it blunt: Only By the Night was your white flag.

The good news? At least it allowed you to simplify your interviews, since you finally obtained the hero worship that, in your general drunken stupor, you probably thought you deserved. Nowadays you can focus your interviews on how booze fuels your recording sessions and how there was a drunken fight between brothers and then there were tears and hugs and beer vodka Jack Daniel's wine coolers Zima blah blah blah. I know Only By the Night moved units, but I also know that you wrote the worst songs of your career (at that time) to do so. And deep down I'd like to think you would at least acknowledge your complete acquiescence to the tasteless masses, but then you fill the diaper and hand us Come Around Sundown?

Witness a once-great band neutered.

At this point, it's no longer about me. It's no longer about my buddy Rob, who introduced me to your music (and who has since apologized profusely, earning him probation instead of a lifetime friendship ban).

This is for the children. If I can keep one American youth from supporting your fraudulent assault on our collective eardrum, I will fold my arms willingly in my casket and be interred at peace.

Once upon a time, you boys went at songwriting like a starving animal after a bloody haunch of meat. Now you have clearly entered your Jabba the Hutt Phase: Bloated by excess, blathering nonsense, beautiful women chained unwillingly to your languishing corpse.

A collapse of this magnitude is unprecedented in popular music. It's akin to the Beatles going disco. I briefly considered Weezer, but they're so dopey these days that it's not as though their fizzle causes any deep-seeded anger. You, on the other hand, went to the dark side. You “sold out” a long time ago when Volkswagen used “Molly's Chambers,” your first recognizable song, in a Jetta commercial. That I forgave, entirely because you continued to create phenomenal music. What I don't forgive is a transparent, calculated series of maneuvers intended to dilute something so rich and precious that you can only share it with your most faithful allies. You changed your image, your aesthetic, the very philosophy of your art. You started a clothing line, featuring bandanas that sell for $104 (seriously). You started shooting music videos laden with exhausted images – Protagonist/lead singer looks longingly into the distance. Protagonist/lead singer rests elbows on knees while sitting on the edge of a bed. Protagonist/lead singer walks the wrong way through a crowd, repeatedly shouldered by the opposing traffic. How emotionally wrenching. Yawn.

I've waded through it all to reach this simple conclusion: Kings of Leon have lost the ability to write great songs. The creative well is dry. What you produce (and unfortunately replicate) now is soundtrack music for a sorority whore's Saturday night, accompanied by the popped-collar crooked-hat-with-a-straight-bill frat dick named Blaine who has latched onto the whiff of her panties.

I swear I've been trying to get down to the heart of the matter. And so, without further ado, I present a play-by-play account of Come Around Sundown. In the spirit of inspiration, oh Kings, I'm going to make this event a booze-fueled celebration – since, you know, that's the only true way to tap into the core of your creative being. (You, Kings! I learned it from you!) And if you don't give a shit how much I've had to drink tonight, tough titties. Imagine how I've felt reading your numb-skull interviews for the past seven years.

But be assured that journalistic integrity is of the utmost importance to me, so I have a sidekick: My lovely lady, hereafter identified as The Empress of Rock and Roll. The Empress has been a Kings fan since back in the day, and she's the sweet voice of reason to my sour asshole cynic.

Allow me a brief preface. Through my in-depth listening sessions for Come Around Sundown, the dawning moment of purpose arrived late in the album during the song “Mi Amigo.” Caleb sings, “I got a friend / Shows me all the good times / Tells me I've looked better / Chews me up and spits me out / And then walks my ass home.”

Well, mis amigos, here I am. But I won't walk your ass home. I'm leaving you in the fucking gutter.

Opener “The End” (Get it? The title is artistically clever because it's actually the first song on the record!) promptly urinates on the ghost of John Bonham, ripping off the drumbeat from Led Zeppelin's “When the Levee Breaks.” Don't fret, Nathan Followill. It's only considered the Heartbeat of Classic Rock and one of the most recognizable rhythms in the history of rock music. It'll just be a secret 'tween us girls.

Melodically (and I apply that word loosely), the song follows a disturbing trend by the band: a dull two-chord structure, with no discernible chorus or hook. It's basically “Knocked Up” – your last great opener – on downers and TheraFlu, minus the faintest shred of passion. A piano outro (why?) is a swing-and-a-miss at artistic growth. Piano doesn't show your development, boys. Songwriting does. And as Caleb yowls, “This could be the end,” we realize with dizzying despair that it's just a lyric – and only wishful thinking.

And the suicidal thoughts begin to creep in...

Next up is “Radioactive,” which would have been a much more appropriate album title. It maintains some semblance of the Kings' glory days, but insists on crowding that out with deliberate additives and preservatives. Like the gospel-tinged backing choir, which isn't about to keep you boys out of hell. Or Matthew Followill's absurd 80's cheese rock arpeggio lead. Or Caleb's lyric, “Just drink the water / It's where you came from.” It's a “nod to our Southern roots” as subtle as a drumstick to the forehead. And if you do indeed “drink the water,” I hope it has cholera.

“Pyro” is your painfully obvious attempt at writing a fresh anthem, resplendent with the lyric, “What's your role? Can you feel it?” I can already see the underage girls raising both arms to the sky, holding their cell phones aloft in place of lighters. Now that you have tasted radio success with ghastly fist-pumpers like “Use Somebody,” good money says all future releases will feature some attempt to recapture the same glory. It's the curse of Live, who always tried to replicate the soaring healing powers of “Lightning Crashes.”

The Empress is wincing by this point.

“It's not so much that it's bad, it's just not the same band,” she says. “They shouldn't write a song over three minutes.” I inform her that it is, in fact, bad. We move on.

“Mary” has garnered much attention because of its homage to swingin' doo-wop soul. If it sounds like a bad idea on paper, rest assured, it sounds bad on the album, too. The inappropriately deafening rhythm guitar sets the tone of amateurism, which is cemented by Matthew's tuneless, wandering guitar solo, performed with gusto by fingernails on a chalkboard.

Just in case all of this erotic turbulence has the nether regions lathered, never fear; thank you, Kings, for mercifully providing a breather with “The Face” and “The Immortals,” two songs that could have been combined into a medley suite titled “The Forgettables.”

“If I was driving a car with this in the CD player, I wouldn't even notice the album was on,” The Empress says. Spot-on, although a compact disc frisbee out of the driver's side window would be a more suitable response. At the midway point of the album, the synopsis reads as follows: This is the sound of a band utterly bored with itself, more interested in the fit of its jeans and the models it's fucking than the music that's being committed to Pro Tools.

But God bless the Kings of Leon. Just when we start to doze off, you left-hook-right-uppercut us with two songs so jarringly, unforgivably wretched that they actually shake off the cobwebs and help us gag down the rest of the album.

“Back Down South” is without question the worst song the Kings of Leon have ever conceived, written, recorded, and vomited at an innocent, unsuspecting, undeserving public. If you're not already rolling your eyes at the title, you don't deserve to listen to music. Slide guitar dueting with fiddle? How blatant can a by-the-numbers Southern anthem/country crossover get? Kudos, boys. You have officially entered the realm of Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Jewel, Jessica Simpson and Gwyneth Paltrow. This must be a proud moment.

Caleb's vocal begins, “Come on out and dance,” melodically and rhythmically stolen from John Mellencamp and Me'shell Ndegeocello's 1994 song “Wild Night,” itself a cover of a Van Morrison classic.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Kings of Leon are so creatively barren that they are stealing from mid-1990s John Mellencamp. You heard it here first.

One minor observation: This isn't a song. It's a chord. Literally. One chord. Verified by myself and The Empress at a September 2010 concert. We humbly submit this as evidence that the creative keg is effectively tapped.

“When we see the lights and we hear the fights / It's gonna be a stunner / I got something here / If you give me one more beer.” (Yes, those are the actual lyrics.) Beer! Fights! The South! Hand claps! Hootenanny ending with hollers and laughter! Ulcer-inducing attempt to connect with tone-deaf single-cell organisms!

Perhaps hoping to dull the sense of shame, “Beach Side” arrives like the worst Doors song never recorded. Alas, The Empress says it best:

“This sounds like one of those Casio keyboard demo songs.” She even uses her thumb to cover up the “e-a-c-h” in the title so that it would read “B Side.” I have nothing to add.

“No Money” is another cringe-worthy middle finger to days yonder. The refrain lyric, “I got no money but I want you so,” is not only fallacious, it's insulting. And by the time “Pony Up” limps through the speakers, it's a physical challenge to prevent the index finger from euthanizing the evening by pressing “Stop.”

This album begins to feel like a contest: Which song is the worst of your career? This is a different kind of “worst.” It's the stabbing-pain-in-the-ribs kind, completely independent of the “Jesus, this song is the worst!” label you laughingly attach to, say, NBC's Sunday Night Football song. Pap of this degree sincerely questions the purpose of a producer, let alone two. Hey, Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King – do your fucking jobs. You've been with these derelicts since the beginning. It's your duty to alert the gifted when they've lost their way.

The 11th sound abortion on this album is called “Birthday.” Fellas, there's actually already a song about this subject matter, and it's kinda cornered the market. I have a vague suspicion that you referenced this song years ago as “Celebrate,” which would be appropriate in a way: It wouldn't fit on an album back then, so it gets flushed onto this one. Filler, resplendent with toilet paper.

After the call of duty that is “Mi Amigo” comes the album closer, “Pickup Truck.” Caleb tries – embarrassingly, in vain – to maintain his back-then rough-hewn vocal edge over polished mid-tempo clean electric balladry. It's an apology of sorts as the song (and the album and the band) drifts toward irrelevance.

“I will not be purchasing this album,” says The Empress.

There's this theory about a piece of shit. You can suds it up with Dial, hose it down with Febreze, record it in a New York City studio with Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King, and it will still be a piece of shit. In the off chance that you're missing my point, Come Around Sundown is a piece of shit. But don't take my word for it; listen to nature. Consider the sage pigeons of St. Louis, who gathered above the Verizon Amphitheatre stage in late July to voice – er, excrete – their assessment of your new direction. You made it through all of three songs before scattering tails-tucked from the bombardment of feces... and a grateful audience roared its approval, inspiring the pigeons to seek out Creed for an encore performance.

Ah, if only. In reality, you spent the following weeks sniveling about the experience. Particular note was made of bassist Jared Followill, an admitted germophobe who reportedly was hit multiple times by a rat-with-wings patty melt. Twenty bucks says he was more worried about messing up his meticulously styled hair. And if he's such a fucking germophobe, wouldn't he have washed his hands of this music by now?

Sidenote: Sources in St. Louis tell me (no lie) that the pigeons never created a problem for any other artist during the entire concert season.

Pigeons, I dedicate this manifesto to thee in my humble attempt to replicate your deed through words.

I'm going to keep this shit riff going for a moment yet. Because as the Kings of Leon have dropped trou and pinched out their last two albums, the popular music media has been drawn to it just like flies (as expected). It's strange. Upon the release of Only By the Night in 2008, the media's response was tepid at best. But when the aforementioned dullards began scooping it up (and Kelly Clarkson began covering “Use Somebody” in concerts), suddenly magazines like Spin were crowning you the band of the year. Of course, it's not strange at all. It's just an embarrassing truth: The magazines are trying to move units, too. What a burden it must be to hitch the noose to a band with no soul.

I have a vision of the Kings of Leon bandwagon. First aboard is the band, followed by family, friends and supporters. But then the latecomers start to load up and weigh down the axles. Spin and Rolling Stone hop on, and suddenly the wheels crack off and the Conestoga wagon goes tumbling into a canyon.

And I will be there in warpaint with my fire-tipped arrows and bow, protecting the holy ground.

Someone has to do it, since the dolts running these major music magazines aren't about to publish an ill word about a band that's punching their timecard, pouring them a JD on the rocks, and mixing up some stir-fry while simultaneously providing a well-lubricated reach-around.

Go ahead, music media giants, go ahead and crown their ass. But the Kings of Leon are who I always feared they were. Just take a look at the parade of free passes issued to Come Around Sundown.

Spin was first and worst, gushing about early performances of the songs at last summer's Bonnaroo festival: “But the real highlight was a clutch of new, as-yet-untitled songs that boasted a rootsier, possibly even more ambitious aesthetic – one had a vaguely doo-wop vocal and a stomping Chuck Berry-ish guitar solo; another... sounded like it could've been written for Trace Adkins or Dierks Bentley.” The latter description of “Back Down South” is an insult so fitting that it cannot be topped. And what in God's name would compel a supposedly knowledgeable music writer to refer to 1950s doo-wop rip-offs and numb country pop crossover retreads as an “even more ambitious aesthetic”? Quality journalism.

Rolling Stone, now resigned to giving Taylor Swift four-star reviews in an attempt to stay afloat, also published a four-star review of Come Around Sundown. That's a fitting comparison of artist quality, and certainly no coincidence: If it's gonna sell, Rolling Stone will gently caress it on its way to the Grammy podium, no matter how watered down it may be. In an excruciating attempt to justify its praise, the magazine claims that Kings of Leon have “become our U2.”

Let's be realistic here. Kings of Leon have become our Nickelback.

The review inexplicably compares the Kings to U2, Talking Heads and 50 Cent, and also references Trey Songz and Paramore. If the point is that the Kings have entered the turkey-with-American-cheese, vanilla ice cream blandness of the popular music scene, then consider that point taken. And in a tidy slight to the band's old faithful, “Birthday” is described as “just a glimpse in the rearview by a band with its foot on the accelerator.” The magazine conveniently neglects to mention that the band is driving off a fucking cliff in the process.

The Los Angeles Times described the Kings thusly: “They're like the IKEA of rock – taking classic, clean designs and spitting out new versions that work for listeners who want to venture a bit afield but not too far.” Once again, we have the Kings of Leon to thank for transforming something as avant garde as melodic rock music into a recipe digestible for all of us simpletons who typically cannot break down the complex enzymes of guitar, drums, bass and vocals.

And the “IKEA of rock”? I take that to mean they're a warehouse of overpriced mass production devoid of any individuality or creativity, much like the herds of obese droids wandering around within. At least the real IKEA serves Swedish meatballs. With the Kings of Leon, one blogger so brilliantly noted, “It's like ordering steak and then getting tofu instead.”

Considering the composition of the current fan base, I think it would be more suitable to describe the Kings of Leon as the Wal-Mart of rock. After all, “Back Down South” is a “porch-ready sing-along for the country in us all.”

And since they're such good ole' boys from back down South, I'm sure they'll appreciate that comparison.

At least the goddamn pigeons got it right.

You know who else makes a convincing argument in my favor? The band. Do me a favor, pensive reader: If you think I'm some yammering zealot, obtain the song “Slow Night, So Long” from Aha Shake Heartbreak. Listen to it. Hear a band at its creative apex – and career high-water mark. Next, obtain the song “The End” from Come Around Sundown. Listen to it. I rest my case.

And music journalists aren't the only ones suffering from delusion. In a rare display of coherency, drummer Nathan Followill actually put down the bottle long enough to help the band's press corps develop a charming little release.

“It would have been so easy for us to go in there and try to have a record full of just polished radio smashes,” he said. “In fact, I'm sure that was expected by a lot of people, but I'm glad that when a song like 'Mary' or 'Back Down South' comes on, people will know immediately that we didn't try to capitalize on being the flavor of the month.”

Ah, Nathan. I can see why genuine musical artist Jason Isbell once proclaimed, “I wish Twitter would quit telling me to follow Nathan Followill. I wouldn't follow that dude to the International House of Blow Jobs.”

Come Around Sundown is nothing but a collection of flaccid attempts at “polished radio smashes.” It's a 13-song album that is 13 songs too long. “Mary” and “Back Down South” are the worst perpetrators of your hollow ambition. And I think you know damn well that you are the flavor of the month, and you have an insatiable craving to capitalize on that.

You will not have another “Use Somebody.” Your popularity will wane as folks suckle the next flavor of the month, because fickle American music listeners have no patience and no sense of allegiance to a band. And you have alienated all of those fans who actually did profess a commitment to your art. Your albums will infest used record stores, and your only legacy will be a four-minute blip on somebody's iPod.

So take it from your “amigo,” boys: This is the low point of your career. And I already know what you and all of your apologist dingleberries are going to say.

“But it sold 6.5 gazillion copies!”

So did the Spice Girls.

See you in hell.

Warmest regards,