Kings of Leon have never been shy of experimenting with their sound. Their early music, such as 2003’s ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’, saw a fusion of Southern rock and garage rock, with blues influences. This gradually evolved, with the alternative, arena-rock sound handing them mainstream success with hits like ‘Sex on Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody.’
When You See Yourself is the second album produced by Markus Dravs, the brains behind some of Arcade Fire and Coldplay’s best work. The album is still very much guitar-centred, a fact not likely to be altered on any Kings of Leon’s records, but the band also experiment with a more atmospheric sound.
The record’s release was postponed for a year due to COVID-19, and so was mostly written pre-pandemic. During an interview with The Guardian, however, lead singer Caleb Followill said of the record: “It very much looks like it was written during quarantine. A lot of the content is prophetic.” Lyrics such as “Is it a man or a masked machine?” (‘Time in Disguise’) and “we could be here forever without a doubt” (‘Echoing’) make for a selection of quarantine anthems. It’s not only COVID anthems that were written, though. The chorus of ‘Claire & Eddie’ warns “Fire’s gonna rage if people don’t change” – an oddly prescient statement considering the waves of political unrest in the US the past year.
It’s clear why this is the album’s single – it’s classic Kings of Leon
The lead single is ‘The Bandit’, a song that tells a vivid story about a bandit and a bounty hunter, who through their obsessions with each other become the most important people in each other’s lives – inspired by Followill’s love of Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson. This song embodies Kings of Leon’s signature energy: loud riffs, unique vocals, and a fast pace. It’s clear why this is the album’s single – it’s classic Kings of Leon.
The second track, ‘100,000 People’, already throws a bold contrast against the lead single. It’s slower, more mellow and with a futuristic synth sound not usually a hallmark of Kings of Leon songs. This track feels like a foggy, quiet night under streetlights, with dreamy lyrics like “Wide awake encased in a dream / Everything is not as it seems / All your time is heaven sent / Days and nights all start to blend.”
‘Golden Restless Age’ and ‘Time in Disguise’ both seem to muse on themes of youth and growth. Lines such as the former’s “I look in your eyes and there’s a rage / And time won’t turn the page” and the latter’s “Is the world I belong to just a shade of light? / It’s just time in disguise” evoke feelings of nostalgia and melancholy at the passage of time – and they do it well.
The album ends with the wistful ‘Fairytale’, a song Followill described as a song that makes you go “F**k, man. This really fits the moment.” The song is pensive and somewhat forlorn, hinting at a feeling of aimlessness – akin to driving along an empty road at night with no destination. ‘The Supermarket’ induces a similar, floaty feeling with lyrics like “I’m going nowhere / If you’ve got the time” bringing forth sentiments of introspective contemplation and futility.
It’s unreasonable to want the band to sound the same way they did a decade ago
A lot of criticism directed towards When You See Yourself has revolved around their unenergetic and disinterested sound, disconnecting with the energy seen on their popular noughties albums. Pitchfork said of the record: “It’s hard to imagine the wild-maned early incarnation of Kings of Leon even wanting to listen to a band like this.” This isn’t necessarily a negative – the album still sounds like Kings of Leon but a wizened version, mature and laid-back with age rather than the rebellious and youthful sound of their earlier albums. It’s unreasonable to want the band to sound the same way they did a decade ago.
This seems to have been part of the band’s intention with this record, though, with Followill telling NME: “We know a lot of people would love us to come out with long hair and moustaches, to be the guys from [their debut album] Youth & Young Manhood again, but we’re a different band now.”
When You See Yourself is a strong album. Accusations of monotony or dreariness are unfair; the record isn’t dull, it just moves away from naïve, youthful and rebellious to pensive and inward-looking, taking on topics of lost youth and reminiscence instead of bright lights and hedonism. It has energetic moments, too, alongside the more sombre tracks, creating a blend of sounds that make for an interesting and engaging listen.
Recommended listening: ‘Time in Disguise’