It’s clear the band’s best work comes when they strip everything back.
Lou Thomas 2010
Although it’s the rawest and most primal of Kings of Leon’s four albums to date, Youth & Young Manhood is no cheap, haphazardly compiled collection of demos. For a start, this debut’s 11 tracks were mostly recorded at Sound City, the Californian studio where Fleetwood Mac mixed Rumours and Nirvana made Nevermind.
Amid these salubrious surroundings the band drew on the talents of producer Ethan Johns (whose father, Glyn, worked with The Eagles and The Rolling Stones) and Angelo Petraglia. The latter had written with the band since their early days and was considered such a safe pair of hands that he shared co-writing credits with Nathan and Caleb Followill (two of the band’s three brothers). Unsurprisingly, then, it’s actually a fairly polished affair, particularly compared to the Holy Roller Novocaine EP, where four of these songs initially appeared in February 2003.
The dense, vulnerable California Waiting loses a touch of vitality, even if typically broad, yearning KoL lyrics linger: “While you're tryin' to save me / Can I get back my lonely life”. It’s a mystery why Caleb’s vocal performance appears to have been muddied up, too. Thankfully, key single Molly’s Chambers is not harmed on its transition to album – it remains a swaggering southern-rock anthem. Elsewhere, non-EP tracks like Happy Alone and Trani are as flabby and forgettable as Jet B sides.
But when the Followills pare it down, the results can be startling. Porch-bound blues ditty Dusty is probably the most soulful tune of their career so far, while tender barroom lament Talihina Sky is remarkably subtle. It’s as if JJ Cale sauntered up (Exile on) Main Street to teach The Stones the true meaning of melancholy.
The rudimentary riffs and song structures across the album lack finesse at this early stage – the Nashville-formed outfit have added significant depth to their sound as their career has progressed. Caleb sings like a rockier Randy Newman, which is not a problem compared to what’s followed: overblown singles like On Call and Sex on Fire are embarrassing by comparison to this rougher fare.
Now lacking some of the fire that informs much of this debut, KoL may well have traded what initially made them so appealing for major league success. Listening back to this collection, it’s clear the band’s best work comes when they strip everything back, even as far as an as-unplugged set-up.