‘When You See Yourself’: Kings of Leon Refine What Makes Them Great

News broke in the days before the release of “When You See Yourself” that Kings of Leon’s eighth studio album was being released as a “non-fungible token,” a form of cryptocurrency that contains unique assets such as music and art. This historic designation may be significant to individuals who use bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency, but the most important thing to know is that the group’s eleven new songs are readily available on conventional digital and streaming platforms; you won’t need to mount a heist with Bill Murray in order to hear it, as a fictional rider connected to the lone copy of Wu-Tang’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” once claimed. Notwithstanding its technological singularity, however, “When You See Yourself” is otherwise a solid if conventional collection of new music from the Followill clan, once again produced by Marcus Dravs (Bjork, Arcade Fire) exploring the contemporary, post-Allmanesque sound they’ve continued to refine since “Youth & Young Manhood.”

From the chugging opener, “When You See Yourself, Are You Far Away,” it’s clear that the band’s musicianship is tighter than ever, with drummer Nathan Followill’s drums controlling the musical reins opposite brother Caleb’s lead vocals. If their sound feels less whiskey-soaked than before, it still oozes with romantic urgency thanks to lyrics like “One more night, one more night we’ll be safe dear.” Shifting to an even speedier tempo on “The Bandit,” the album’s lead single, the band wears well the juxtaposition between their forebears’ country-rock looseness and a more modern structural precision, with Caleb carry verses before yielding to the harmonies of his bandmates on the chorus. Comparisons to The Strokes in the band’s early days felt then like context clues from music critics, but oddly they feels more apropos now, with Nathan’s tight drum kit keeping pace as Dravs’ production explores the space occupied by his bandmates’ instruments (and voices) to create a sort of restrained garage-rock sound.

“100,000 People,” the album’s second single, offers a study in contrasts, showcasing the band’s expanding sophistication and versatility; their lyrics aim for more cryptic subject matter (“ Parlor games and 6 o’clock news / Hands of a stranger touching you”) as Dravs pulls Jared Followill’s shimmering keyboards into the foreground for a contemplative tone that stop just shy of the new wave shorthand of something like the Cars’ “Who’s Gonna Take You Home.” What’s most impressive is how well the new and old fits together, evidencing the exact kind of development as an ensemble that keeps them interesting and relevant long after attracting fans interested in the media’s initial characterization of them as a latter-day Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Stormy Weather” flirts with that kind of timeless barroom romance (“Working thе floor on the weekend / No one can spin it like we can”), but the song’s lyrics quickly pivot into more poetic reflections of attraction and longing, as Caleb sings, “Running like bulls of Pamplona / Try as I might to control you / You’re like smoke in my eyes.” Ephemeral both technically and thematically, Kings of Leon are touching into truths deeper than the floorboards of a pickup truck cargo hold.

“A Wave,” a song the band reportedly worked on for almost eight months before landing on the version that shows up on the album, further displays their gradual shift into more philosophical territory via lyrics that look at the ups and downs, the restlessness and rewards of life, and the recognition that the things that annoy us are ultimately worth it for all the rest we get in exchange: “Everybody has an opinion / I don’t likе most of them / Cause the lifе that we live is better living / Than living alone.” And yet, their capacity to craft a straightforward rocker like “Golden Restless Age” is the other thing that’s kept them working — a consistency that many other bands can’t maintain, a core they build all of that natural (or deliberate) growth and change around. Like bands from before their predecessors, Kings of Leon love to chronicle, celebrate and emotionally map the women who beguile, enchant and confound them, for good and for bad, and lyrics like “You look impeccable / Cutting through the room like a knife / Sharpened leather fastened tight / Oh so insatiable” both exemplify their songwriting chops in this expansive arena and place them among the top tier of modern rock’s enduring voices.

Dancing between the specific — the intimate — and more ambient sensations is what regularly elevates their songs, offering more relatability to listeners whether they want songs that reflect romantic feelings or larger musings on life itself. Even the seemingly simple rhymes of “Time in Disguise” (“Blind attraction, chain reaction / What you have is mine”) continually play at multiple meanings, while its melody and musicianship strike recognizable, unthreatening chords for people more inclined to pay attention to how familiar these songs sound than what they’re actually saying. The band evidently originally wrote “Supermarket” as long ago as 2009, but their steady, patient refinement of songs like this and “A Wave” indicates not only that they’re uninclined to release music for its own sake, again as many other bands might, but that they’re willing to do what it takes to get it to a place worthy of the rest of their work. 

A song like “Claire & Eddie” is the sort that feels like their wheelhouse, at least based on their country-rock influences, with lyrics that reference “the Colorado River” and draw parallels between romantic love and respect for nature, but buried among the final tracks of the album, it feels more like a laid back digression from the progress they display on the songs that precede it. But after jangling through the upbeat, contemplative “Echoing” (“Time is often higher learning / I’m still barely making grades”), the record comes to a close with “Fairytale,” a track that unwinds all of the record’s existential tension and offers a little bit of grace, draped in reverb that follows Caleb’s voice through six beautiful chorus-free verses. True to the band’s most basic instincts but exemplary of its tremendous intellectual and artistic growth, “When You See Yourself” is a great record for the shitkicker in you, as well as the philosopher — especially when you can’t decide which one to be on the day you’re listening to it.

When You See Yourself” releases March 5 on Apple Music.