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12 Years Ago: Kings of Leon Debut With ‘Youth & Young Manhood’

Kings of Leon Youth & Young Manhood
RCA, Amazon

Every few years, a band comes along that reminds us what rock ‘n’ roll is all about. Exile-era Rolling Stones come to mind, as do the Sex Pistols, the Ramones – even the Black Crowes helped pull us back from the brink of Aqua Net asphyxiation at the height of the hair metal madness.

So it was on August 19, 2003, when three brothers and their cousin, who’d christened themselves Kings of Leon, released their debut album, Youth & Young Manhood.

The Followill brothers, along with their cousin Matthew, arrived on the early 2000s music scene as if they’d just stepped from central casting. Authenticity was in high demand and the indie scene’s leading lights all had had something slightly suspect in their back stories. The Strokes were the wealthy sons of pop culture royalty; the White Stripes were… too White Stripes. Jet‘s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” was just around the corner, but the band were Australian and the song was used in a commercial.

But Kings of Leon – in the words of O Brother, Where Are Thou? – they were bona fide. New Music Express nailed it back in 2005:

There can’t have been another band in history who arrived with a backstory and image more acutely designed to make certain music fans (ie: journalists) cry with pleasure than the Kings Of Leon. Here was a band raised by a man with a Bible in one hand and a bottle in the other; a band who apparently spent many of their formative years living in a car; a band who were even more than the last gang in town that every band wants to be – a band of actual brothers and cousins.

Journalists (including NME) ate it up. The Guardian called the album “a Kerouac-styled, lust-propelled journey into emergent adulthood…By the time the slightly shambolic singalong of ‘Dusty’ sweeps over you, you’ll be smitten.” Rolling Stone gave the album four stars, saying:

The thrill is in the groove. Some of the time that means jacked-up garage punk, as the group tumbles down a “Spiral Staircase” and greets the “Red Morning Light” with bloodshot conviction. But the Kings are also a Southern rhythm section to their core: They know when to lay back and let things simmer, and when to jump up and testify with tambourines banging. Guitar-playing in this band is not about Southern-rock virtuosity in the Allmans mold but about staggering-drunk solos that suggest calamity is just around the corner (dig that firecracker dance in “Happy Alone”) or ooze blues slop until it melts into feedback (“Dusty”).

All that backstory and critical adulation aside, the bottom line is that the boys came out swinging with a solid garage album. There’s no flash here. Album opener and first single “Red Morning Light” is like a hot rod built on a budget — no money for fancy paint or shiny wheels, every dollar dedicated to speed.

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“Red Morning Light” came up just shy of the top 20 on the U.K. singles chart, as did second single “Molly’s Chambers.” This cut got massive exposure via a Volkswagen Jetta commercial. Keep this in your pocket for music trivia night: The song’s title comes from a line in Thin Lizzy‘s “Whiskey in the Jar” (“Being drunk and weary I went to Molly’s chamber / Takin’ my money with me and I never knew the danger“).

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Much was made of the band’s southern rock roots, and they are certainly there, but third single, “Wasted Time,” could be a lost Violent Femmes track if Caleb Followhill’s voice was an octave higher.

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As great as the singles are, the real fun of Youth & Young Manhood is in the deep cuts. Here’s the sound of a band trying to find itself, moving from Velvet Underground cool to Skynyrd rock to the Strokes-like sound of “Happy Alone.”

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Despite the critical acclaim, the album didn’t do much in the U.S.; however, overseas was another story. The record went platinum in both Australia and the U.K., where it also cracked the top five. Worldwide sales neared one million copies.

Kings of Leon have released five albums since their debut, experimenting with both their sound and their songwriting as they went. Their disinterest in adhering to a formula has divided their audience into those who cling to the rough beauty of Youth and Young Manhood and those who are willing to come along for the ride.

We reported back in June 2015 that the band has started work on album number seven. You better believe we’ll be along for the ride.

Next: 15 Albums You Won't Believe Turn 20 in 2015

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