The Kings of Leon's last album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, was an infuriating mess that was also, inexplicably, a hit with critics. While anybody with ears could hear the power behind this band, which consists of three brothers and a cousin, Aha Shake Heartbreak felt formless and tossed off. The Kings couldn't even rouse themselves to find decent hooks for half the songs. The lyrics were especially nonsensical, even by the low standards of a rock record. Maybe reviewers were just in love with the band's bio, which reveled in the fact that the brothers were primitive Southern boys, raised by an evangelical father who barnstormed the South to save souls. It wouldn't be the first time ears were fooled by hype.
But something happened on my way to forgetting about Aha Shake Heartbreak: A few of the songs lingered, finding their way back to a mind that had relegated them gone. My opinion of the album held, but maybe there was more to it than I first suspected.
Now the Kings of Leon arrive with Because of the Times, and there is no waiting around for the impact because it is immediate. This is a great record. It's old-fashioned in the sense that the guitar and Caleb Followill's distinctive, drawl-heavy voice are the twin instruments that power an album that finds hooks under seat cushions and everywhere else it looks.
Because of the Times also does that rare thing in rock: It opens strong and then just gets better. The first song, the seven-minute "Knocked Up," is a nervy tale of running away that floats on a recurring flute figure and an explosive burst of guitar that wouldn't sound out of place on a U2 record. "Charmer" follows and has a menacing, bass-driven riff that recalls the Pixies. "On Call" is next, and it's just a beautiful, soaring anthem with vocals that push the song higher and higher.
The lyrics are still sloppy on occasion even as the subject of the songs is made more clear and direct. Luckily, the Kings are singing about tried-and-true rock subjects: girls, fans, girls, and cars. They do so with a swagger and a confidence that seem to elude most bands. One hesitates to bring up comparisons with such heavyweights as the Rolling Stones, but that's the level of pleasure Because of the Times is operating on.