We’ve written about some things on this record that we’re ashamed of, said things that we wouldn’t normally say. We’ve got some songs about fighting and some songs about loving and some songs about fucking,” says Caleb Followill about the songs on Kings of Leon’s new album, Aha Shake Heartbreak. “We’re definitely not the same people we were 18 months ago. We’ve all just grown so, so much and seen so many things,” the lead singer says, adding that the band’s new songs chronicle “different nights, different stories and different emotions. ”
Drummer brother Nathan adds, “On our first album, I’d say about 30 percent of what we were writing about was autobiographical and 70 percent was wishful thinking. We were writing about things we hadn’t seen yet. On this album, 90 percent of what we’re writing about are things we’ve experienced, nights we’ve had. There’s still that other ten percent though…”
Kings of Leon’s second record, Aha Shake Heartbreak, finds the band brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill, and first cousin Matthew Followill-delving deeper than ever into their rich musical rapport and shared personal history to deliver a dozen doses of raw, personally charged rock. The new band-penned songs reflect the life-changing — often traumatic –experiences that irrevocably altered the four band members’ perspectives during the 18 months that preceded the album’s creation. During that time, the band swiftly rose from rural obscurity to bona fide rock stardom overseas-particularly in the U.K., where their 2003 debut Youth & Young Manhood has almost sold double platinum.
While Youth & Young Manhood shook up the musical landscape, introducing a bracing blend of runaway-train energy, pointedly thoughtful lyrical attitude and a remarkably fresh take on traditional guitar-rock dynamics, the new collection marks a wildly impressive leap forward, taking the first album’s primal rock into deeper-and unmistakably darker-musical and emotional territory. The upheaval that accompanied the band’s rapid rise to heavily-scrutinized international rock stardom is reflected in Aha Shake Heartbreak’s original compositions. These haunting, twisted tales compellingly confront the darker side of success, surveying the personal toll of debauchery, overindulgence and fast living. The NME recently observed, “If Youth and Young Manhood was the party, Aha Shake Heartbreak is the hangover.”
The material encompasses a broad range of stylistic elements and lyrical moods, from the anthemic, soul-searching “My Generation” rush of “The Bucket” to the pensive, nervous groove of “Slow Nights, So Long” to the swaggering throb of “Taper Jean Girl” to the jittery minimalism of “King of the Rodeo” and the dreamy desolation of “Milk.” Throughout the album, the band’s unique instrumental chemistry is matched by the emotional gravity of Caleb’s distinctively slurred vocals.
The British press has already taken notice of Aha Shake Heartbreak’s creative quantum leap. Mojo said the record is “an ultimately outstanding crack at Brokering an accord between spiky noo wave and fuzzy ’70s stoner rock”, while The Guardian gave it “CD of the week” status and went on to say that the band has “sophistication that outstrips their contemporaries…a vast improvement on Youth & Young Manhood.”
Like its predecessor, Aha Shake Heartbreak was recorded with producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller) at his 3 Crows studio in Los Angeles using the Beatles’ old Abbey Road mixing desk. Once again, the band’s longtime mentor, noted songwriter/producer Angelo, made additional co production contributions. The tracks were cut completely live with no overdubs, and the stripped-down approach resulted in punchy, organic performances as well as some affecting moments of intimacy and sensitivity.
“There were things on this record that I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do before because I was afraid everybody else would think I was soft,” said Caleb. “Anything from yodeling to singing pretty when I wanted to sing pretty…I still bring it when I got to bring it.” The singer also kicked a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit in order to expand his vocal range in the studio. Three of the four Followills were still in their teens when Kings of Leon debuted with the five-song EP Holy Roller Novocaine in February 2003.
Youth & Young Manhood followed six months later, winning such early accolades as a four-star review in Rolling Stone, before achieving wholesale international stardom. Admiring critics have often focused on the undiluted purity of Kings of Leon’s rural roots. But that purity has, ironically, led some observers to overlook the originality and complexity of the band’s music, which draws freely from a multitude of musical traditions while sounding like no one else.
Caleb makes it clear that, despite the outside pressures and expectations that have accompanied the band’s rise to prominence, Kings of Leon remain fiercely focused on continuing to create riveting music that’s wholly their own. The whirlwind of the band’s recent history has tested the Followills’ mettle and strengthened their resolve, carrying the four musicians from their sheltered, humble upbringing to the sort of high profile mythology that’s usually reserved for veteran combos. “We were plucked out of nowhere, and we had a lot of fun and did a lot of crazy shit,” the singer notes. “But we’ve also become more serious about this music and more confident in what we’re doing. We’re growing, but we’re trying not to grow up.”