In February 2020, Kings of Leon updated their social media channels with the message, “The W8 is nearly over,” hinting that the Nashville rock group’s eighth album was just around the corner.
But so was a global pandemic. Soon, the band’s tour plans evaporated, and plans to release album No. 8 — their first since 2016’s “Walls” — were quietly put on hold.
“We had everything lined up,” recalls frontman Caleb Followill. “We knew what we wanted it to look like and feel like. We were working really, really hard. And then everything stopped, and we felt bad for our fans. We didn’t want to come right out and be like, ‘Hey, we have an album, but you can’t hear it,’ you know?
“It was a little difficult, but it gave us some time to really reflect. I put the album away for at least three months before I ever even listened to it. And when I listened to it, I was happy with what we had done. I didn’t want to go in there and tweak anything. I felt like we had captured who we were in that moment.”
On Friday, the band’s fans will finally see the full picture, with the release of album eight, “When You See Yourself.” It’s a more personal, introspective turn for Followill and his bandmates (brothers Jared and Nathan Followill, with cousin Matthew), who grew from a rowdy garage rock act to arena commanders in their early years.
Caleb, the band’s principal songwriter, got to this point in a roundabout way: by writing about other people and characters.
“I never wanted to write a song that was like, ‘Oh, woe is me, this is my life, this is my relationship,’” he says. “But I felt like if I was writing it through a different lens, and about what I considered (to be) someone else, there was a lot more honesty that came out, and a lot more of myself, actually, shined through.”
“Echoing,” for example, was written about “a couple of people that were institutionalized,” Followill says. “They obviously wanted to break out and go live a life, so they created this fantasy of where they wanted to go. … And then after (the pandemic) happened, I read the lyrics. And it meant something completely different than that.”
“Waking early in the morning,” he sings on the track. “Waiting on the light of day/ Whole new kind of feeling is on the way/ I’m not scared of knowing if we’re ever getting out/ We could be here forever without a doubt.”
It’s one of several moments on “When You See Yourself” that feel eerily prophetic. Another is “Supermarket,” a song Followill wrote more than a decade ago but hadn’t felt ready to put on an album until now. Most fans probably know it as “Going Nowhere.” Last March – when much of the U.S. was two weeks into lockdown – the band released a video under that name, with Followill performing “Supermarket” acoustically.
“It’s a long hard road until I can get to you,” he sang. “And I’ll be holding on, hoping the sun comes shining through/ I’m going nowhere, if you got the time.”
“That was kind of our way to give our fans a little something to chew on while we tried to figure out what we were going to do,” Followill says.
But it’s surprising to learn that even the video was recorded before the pandemic. It was a spur-of-the-moment suggestion by the clip’s director, Casey McGrath. In the midst of a photo shoot, he asked Followill to sit on a “ratty couch” and play the song in one take. Weeks later, they pulled up the footage and saw it in a new light.
“We could have put that (song) out many, many times,” Followill says. “And it was important that it came out when it did.”
Even before it was delayed, “When You See Yourself” marked the longest gap between Kings of Leon albums. The last, “Walls,” arrived three weeks before the 2016 presidential election, and Followill says he was “kind of happy to not have a microphone in my hand” during the last few tumultuous years.
Though they eventually broke through in the U.S. with their fourth album, 2008’s “Only By the Night,” the U.K. has been the band’s most crucial domain. They were still a fairly anonymous act on Nashville’s club circuit when their earliest recordings caught fire across the Atlantic in 2003, and they’ve remained giants there ever since.
Back when the band first teased about “the w8,” a slate of massive concerts in the U.K. were on the horizon. Right now, the band still has a couple of postponed arena gigs scheduled for mid-June. Regardless of the timetable, Followill believes they haven’t rocked their last big crowd.
“I think it’s going to be better than it was before, actually,” he says. “I think everyone’s a little more educated and will find safer ways to go about doing it.”
But eventually, he adds, “I want it to be sweaty, drunken shenanigans. I want some big concert vibes. … I want the crazy to come back.”
Perhaps the crazy will return by 2023, which marks the 20th anniversary of their debut album, “Youth and Young Manhood,” and might be celebrated by a special concert or two.
“We always talk about that kind of stuff,” Followill says. “I can’t believe that it’s already so close. One of my buddies from The Strokes sent me a picture the other day from when we were on tour together. And I think it was probably ‘03. And I was like, ‘Man, that’s almost 20 years ago.’ And he was like, ‘… I didn’t even think about that.’ But yeah, we’ll find something creative and cool to do. I mean, we always like to go back to small venues, any chance we get. It’s very nerve-racking doing that. It’s a lot easier for me to sing in front of 20,000 people than it is for me to sing in front of 50 people, up close like that. But we’ll find a way.”
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