Kings of Leon have always acted like rock & roll royalty, even before Only by the Night went platinum in 12 different countries. What started off as good-natured posturing turned into the real deal in 2008, though, when “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” helped redefine the Followill boys as the new champions of arena rock. Gone were the songs about transvestites and coked-up supermodels; in their place were Top 40 anthems that swung for the fences, armed with U2-sized guitar riffs and giant, lighter-hoisting choruses. Releasing that sort of album -- the kind that soccer moms blast in the family minivan -- has its downside, too, and Kings of Leon found themselves struggling to prove that they hadn’t forgotten about their older fans. All of this makes Come Around Sundown the most important album of the band’s career, since it gives Kings of Leon a chance to choose which side of their audience they’d like to keep.
The answer? Well, none of these songs are as blatantly commercial as “Use Somebody,” but none have the artsy, Appalachia-meets-London charm of Aha Shake Heartbreak, either. After touring in support of Only by the Night for two years, the guys are acutely aware that loud, booming anthems are the best way to fill a stadium, and Come Around Sundown is engineered to sound as immense as possible. Nowhere is this more evident than in Caleb Followill’s choruses, most of which seem to revolve around sustained high notes, and Matthew Followill’s guitar lines, which split their time between moody textures and cyclic, reverb-heavy riffs. The few diversions from that template are some of the album’s best moments -- “Mary” sweetens the band’s sound with a little doo wop, and “Beach Side” focuses on casting a mood rather than creating a spectacle -- but they’re too scattered to change the "go big or go home" mentality, and the twangy “Back Down South” (which soared during the band’s mid-summer 2010 tour) never quite leaves the ground in its recorded version. All detours aside, this is super-sized, guitar-driven, modern rock pomp, a sort of Only by the Night: The Sequel aimed at those who prefer their KOL songs big and bombastic. Kings of Leon haven’t gotten to the point where “Use Somebody” is their default setting, but it has become their benchmark, and Come Around Sundown attempts to replicate that song’s success while still giving the middle finger to Top 40 radio. Sometimes, it works. Other times, Kings of Leon sound like they’ve flatlined their sound while trying to streamline their appeal.