Kings of Leon’s Youth & Young Manhood is 2003’s finest rock debut. Earlier this year, they released Holy Roller Novocaine, an EP. It prompted two points. First was that the Kings, with their beat-up jeans, wry logo T-shirts, Chuck Taylors, and anti-*NSync engineering, might be a Deep South Strokes. The second was that the Kings, sons of a traveling minister, translated the raucously soulful music played in regional Pentecostal churches into internationally savvy U.S. rock. Youth & Young Manhood renders point one irrelevant. Point two, however, remains richly germane.
Kings of Leon are the Followills, raised in Tennessee and Oklahoma—singer and rhythm guitarist Caleb, drummer Nathan, and bassist Jared, plus lead guitarist Matthew (their first cousin). Their music doesn’t sound like the heavy metal or hard rock or roots-folk of the numerous Christian bands from Nashville, the Followills’ recent hometown. This is because the Followills did not grow up in churches where gleaming contemporary Christian music was played. In the Followills’ churches, the music was more like black gospel. This music seemed the song-based version of white Southerners speaking in tongues. Unlike Amy Grant’s polite pop, Methodist hymns’ unwavering formalism, or Purcell’s Anglo majesty, the Followills’ formative music is, among non-Pentecostals, seldom heard; in 1971, the Southern white soul couple Delaney & Bonnie adapted bits of its spiritual skank on their album Motel Shot. The acoustic music might have come from the First Community Congregation of Mars.
But on Youth & Young Manhood, Kings of Leon don’t do variations on “Holy Roller Novocaine,” the sexed-up Pentecostal rocker. Instead, unleashing more sound than the Black Crowes could imagine and a pop sensibility more fucked-up and buried than the Georgia Satellites, Kings of Leon goose the grooves and turn up the guitars, elongating the melodies of songs such as “Red Morning Light” and “Happy Alone.” They do this with such dispatch, depth, and sensuality that their sources emerge as internalized. Caleb Followill recharacterizes his tenor to sound older, creakier, madder—less like Justin Timberlake—than it almost certainly actually is. But on occasionally rappy rave-ups such as “Joe’s Head” and “Trani,” it’s never a tack you want him to drop.
On “Dusty,” after Kings of Leon have done a string of drug-like up-tempos, channeled Mott the Hoople, punked out Tom Petty, and bashed through a pop song (“California Waiting”) without vomiting, Caleb approaches a trad-style blues. The limits of the Kings thing threaten to show. But then he starts to repeat the line “Where thrills are cheap/But love’s divine.” And Nathan drums in this sort of slow, steamy, interrogative way. And Matthew blurts out some sharp, staccato, furry-sounding single notes from the techno record the cat dragged in.
If Kings of Leon were a highway, they would be that serene stretch of interstate around Chattanooga, where redneck truck drivers power around like midtown Manhattan cabbies. If Kings of Leon were a food writer, they’d be Julia Reed, keen to have dinner, once again, at Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi. If Kings of Leon were spies, you would have to add Memphis to Washington-London-Paris-Berlin. If they were jewelry, they’d be a gentleman’s old half-carat diamond ring, shoved toward the back of a dresser drawer; if they were money, they would be slick leather suitcases of smelly hundred-dollar bills; if they were a sport, they wouldn’t be lacrosse. And if Kings of Leon were an automobile, no question, they would be a ’83 Alfa Romeo GTV6, giving costlier marques serious trouble.
Kings of Leon play Bowery Ballroom September 10.