Who knew that Kings of Leon couldn’t really write lyrics until they were three albums deep into their career? In looking at material around the release of the band’s second album, 2004’s ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’, I found one particularly scathing 4.9 (out of 10) review from Pitchfork which suggested that the suite of songs across the album were “about stuff like women and being in a band, but they sound deeply impersonal, and often obligatory in their lazy misogyny and lazier obtuseness.” Harsh but, on reflection, devastatingly true. The former part particularly rears its ugly head in the way frontman Caleb Followill sort of skates across a line in this track, swallowing each word in a decidedly lower tone than anything else in the song as he declares, “Cunts watch their bodies, no room for make up”. Its this sort of throwaway line, unnecessary and offensive in the scheme of things, that characterises the record – two before the mainstream explosion that was ‘Only By The Night’ (read: ‘Sex On Fire’, ‘Use Somebody’). And yet, it’s taken until this evening, more thoroughly examining the lyrics to ‘Taper Jean Girl’, for me to realise that the band of Followills (three brothers and a cousin named after their grandfather Leon) would have made Coldplay’s casually rambling Chris Martin look like Jeff Buckley back in the day.
The issue with Kings of Leon is that for almost their entire existence as a band (est. 1999), they’ve been fighting their own representation. In the first instance, the boys from Oklahoma (by way of Nashville) battled to get away from the Lynyrd Skynyrd portrayal of hard Southern rockers. Then, once finished re-positioning themselves as not of the ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ variety, they had to contest with the idea that they were just another iteration of The Strokes, an indie band taking on slight Southern leanings to distinguish themselves from the masses of tight-jeaned, long-haired lotharios who were swarming the rock world at that time. Subsequently, someone got onto them and mentioned that they might be the biggest rock band in the universe if they tweaked a couple of things, perhaps invested in generally comprehensible lyrics, and BAM! ‘Sex On Fire’. 2010’s follow-up to the indomitable ‘Only By The Night’ is Kings of Leon grappling with suddenly being commercial, suddenly knowing how to write lyrics that make some sense, suddenly in a real conundrum.
But ‘Taper Jean Girl’ is not there. Instead, it falls squarely and deliciously into ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ when the band’s stocks in self-realisation were through the roof. I suppose the album’s name itself should have been some indication of the nonsensical warbling that was to follow but it just never occurred to me. And that, despite angry Pitchfork critic’s determining Caleb was “a terrible singer, like a drunken Randy Newman”, is probably down to the fact that regardless of lyrical coherence and the band’s patently awkward position along the road to self-actualisation, songs like ‘Taper Jean Girl’ are awesome in their own right. I’ve never looked into the words behind the song (or their lazy misogyny) because I’m quite happy jamming along to the drums set high in the mix, the dirty guitar lines playing a teasing game of call-and-response with Caleb and tagging along for the ride through his vocal range and testipopped jumps and crackles. Much of the enjoyment with ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ lies in abandon, in forgetting the expectations of convention and good taste and getting lost in the mood – manufactured, reactive or otherwise – that the Followill lads carve out. ‘Taper Jean Girl’ may well make less sense than ‘Use Somebody’ but it is more hip, more sassy, more untempered fun by a country mile.
Kings of Leon – Aha Shake Heartbreak