If you’re under the age of 21, then you’ll probably have only ever known Kings of Leon as big, blustering, stadium-filling MOR rock titans. From the moment that their loins were set aflame with the advent of 2008’s ubiquitous mega-hit ‘Sex On Fire’, the quartet – comprised of Nashville brothers Nathan, Caleb and Jared Followill, plus their cousin Matthew – fully embraced the lure of the big time; with nary a look back, radio-friendly choruses and anthemic sincerity would become the order of the day. But before… oh, before then, things were very different…
Rewind back to summer 2003 and debut album ‘Youth and Young Manhood’ exploded into consciousness in a feral tangle of lusty howls and rattling guitars; if The Strokes were the effortlessly cool kids propping up the early ’00s bar, then KOL were their randy Southern cousins, getting their rocks off round the back. It was a blisteringly exciting opening statement, but a year later they’d follow it with their masterpiece, ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ – an album that retained all the dangerous, unhinged energy that categorised its predecessor, but refined it into something sharper, clearer and more focused. An album, essentially, that proved they weren’t just a bunch of rough’n’ready Tennessee tearaways, but that they could write some properly big songs too.
If ‘YAYM”s finest moments (save for the still-incredible yearn of ‘California Waiting’) were all categorised by their unpolished, raw rattle, then on ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ the band upped the production values and pop nouse just enough to turn their unpolished diamonds into bona fide gems. ‘Soft’ is almost certainly the most joyous, climactic (irony intended) song about erectile dysfunction out there; ‘Taper Jean Girl’ prowls by on barely contained lust, while ‘Velvet Snow’ is a giddy hillbilly bop that’s insatiable in its exuberance. And then you get to the hits.
In ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ we still have a glorious document of them in their youthful, exuberant prime.
If the purring stomp of ‘Four Kicks’, complete with Caleb’s 50-a-day throaty gasps, still best exemplify the sexually-charged hedonism that defined the band’s early days, then ‘The Bucket’ remains their perfect singular moment; instantly recognisable from the first twinkling chords and cathartic shout, its tumult of drums and ringing guitars were the giddy indie disco soundtrack of a generation.
At their best, Kings of Leon were among the very best, and its why their slow trudge into their current form bears lamenting. In 2004, it would have seemed unthinkable that a band so thrilling would ever be anything but that; in 2018, it seems like a distant memory that they ever were. But in ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ we still have a glorious document of them in their youthful, exuberant prime. And that’ll do us for now.