When Kings of Leon released their second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, in 2004, it seemed like they had found a sound that clicked. The four-piece band of brothers (and one cousin) from Tennessee had taken the jangly blues-rock of their 2003 debut and tightened it into elegant, catchy songs like “Taper Jean Girl” and “King of the Rodeo.” Their music, once you looked past the band’s French undershirts and Bible Belt backstory (which critics clung to with both admiration and contempt), was satisfyingly simple — a clean promise of greater things, with maybe just a little too much masculine posturing.
But it hasn’t been an easy road for Kings of Leon since Aha Shake Heartbreak. After they leapt to a new level of success with 2008’s Only by the Night, the band enacted a repeated nosedive into the doldrums of commercial rock. Their past two albums have cemented the former bright young hopes of alt-rock as a lumbering stadium act, trading in their once minimalist approach for a sea of interchangeable, reverb-drenched anthems that aspire to classic rock but land closer to contemporaries like Bastille and Cage the Elephant. Kings of Leon’s latest single, “Waste a Moment,” is no exception: The band toils through the track’s three minutes in a mechanical reinterpretation of what a big, atmospheric rock song should sound like in 2016, even including a “millennial whoop” in the background.
Kings of Leon are one of the most successful rock bands of the last 10 years, but their sound today is no longer just middle of the road — it’s almost aggressively anonymous. Then again, so are the latter-day efforts of many of the impressive young rock bands alongside whom Kings of Leon rose up in the early 2000s. The Strokes have seemingly turned to watered-down genre experiments in ’80s new wave, and Interpol’s most recent album, El Pintor, came uncomfortably close to the same wall-of-sound festival rock that Kings of Leon are stuck with. The tight, minimal, hooky rock that once propelled the bands of this generation has now given way to something less compact. And in the process of filling every inch of their music with popular music tropes of the time à la carte, these acts have also lost the vision that made their original hits noteworthy in the first place. “Waste a Moment” plays like an imprint of the last five years of music — neither a return to Kings of Leon’s svelte roots nor a reinvention worth investing in.