10 Years, 100 Songs: #43. “I Can Just Taste It…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 9, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
There might not have been a greater mystery to be had in Naughty Oughties pop music than this. What the fuck happened to Kings of Leon? It seems like only yesterday that they were just some mediocre, rootsy southern rock band, like My Morning Jacket without the ambition or songwriting talent, a band whose commercial ceiling was getting their songs featured in car commercials and fleshing out music festival bills with sub-headlining afternoon performances. Sure, they had an acceptable cult following, and every so often one of my friends would put a song on a mix or something under the pretense that it was less boring than all their other songs–but I never gave a shit, and I was pretty sure that I would never have to.
I don’t know the KoL catalogue well enough to say whether the transformation was all of a sudden or more of a gradual thing, but suffice to say, there was more than a little bit of a disconnect for me the first time I heard “Sex on Fire.” Well, maybe not at first–the first couple times I saw the “Sex on Fire” video on TV, I either skipped past it or just didn’t pay it much attention, my initial prejudices against the band still firmly rooted. But the song became big enough that I was eventually forced to actually give it some sort of consideration, and once I did, I was amazed at how different the band was from the Kings of Leon I remembered. Gone was even the faintest hit of southern influence, as well as any possible claim to raw, garage-rock credibility. What we had instead, to put it reductively, was straight-up arena rock–music custom-designed to fill up as large a space as you could play it in.
Many fans no doubt cried bloody murder at this transformation. Indeed, if you still believed in the somewhat archaic myth of the rock and roll sell-out, KoL would probably be about as good an example to cite as any of a band that compromised its sound (though this would, of course, assume that the Kings actually had edge to their original style) and was rewarded with fame and riches for it. But then again, there’s always this: “Sex on Fire” was actually a great song, a song every bit deserving of its stadium-filling aspirations. Regardless of what KoL’s musical roots were, regardless of what fans had become accustomed to associating them with, and regardless on what their personal take is on the music they play now, I think it’s pretty hard to deny that the band sounds pretty natural shooting for the moon–like perhaps this was their musical destiny all along.
And rock so badly needed a band like Kings of Leon, Mk. 2. Coldplay had done their best to keep Big alive in rock music, but that’s really just not the kind of band that they were–their songs were a little too wimpy, their personality a little too passive. Kings of Leon, on the other hand, were definitely a rock band in the true sense. They weren’t quite as loathesome as bands like Jet or Buckcherry, but there was definitely a fair amount of sleaze to them–they looked grungy, like they were perpetually waking up from a night-long bar excursion, and they sang about sex in a way where you felt they’d done the get-the-girl-to-your-room-and-play-her-Bob-Dylan thing once or twice. This was writ large by the “Use Somebody” video, whose combination of live footage, backstage cameraderie and bar-hanging made it look like the 00s equivalent of a Motley Crue video. Clearly, the Kings were worthy candidates for hugeness.
Still, it was the music that did it. “Sex On Fire” was about as great a showcase for musical grandiosity as one could ask for, each of the four members playing like the lead instrument. Nathan’s drums were crisp and fraught with tension, tapping nervously on the verses and releasing with a hi-hat frenzy on the chorus. Matthew’s guitar, which introduces the song, was equally gripping, alternating between an overly-excited tremble and a rapturous, practically orgasmic exhortation. And Caleb’s vocals, straight out of the Paul Westerberg school of “sing high and loud enough that your voice is always just on the verge of cracking, and even if you’re singing about eating cinnamon-flavored outmeal it’ll sound passionate and urgent,” slays the vocal, legitimately sounding like a dude who (as pictured in the excellent video–thanks again, Sophie Muller) is so lustful and/or sexually frustrated that he’s one pussy-less-hour away from death. (Peggy Lee made have sang about a guy giving her fever, but you never really got the picture that it was the type that left her bed-ridden and asking around for a priest).
But for my money, the key to the song is Jared’s bass. Producers Jacquie King and Angelo Petraglia (the same guys who helped Modest Mouse reach that next level on Good News for People Who Love Bad News) push the bass way, WAY up in the mix, until it’s almost elbowing the other instruments out of the way to get to the very forefront. It’s an unconventional move, but one that pays absolute dividends, with the bass not only anchoring the song sonically, but helping to give it the necessary momentum as it starts off percolating, begins to rev up towards the end of the verses and begins a full on light-speed zoom by the chorus. It also gives the song that kind of black, after-dark feel to it–something very key to the Kings of Leon experience, where it felt like it was always 3:30 in the morning (the album was called Only By the Night, after all).
Of course, you can’t talk about a song like “Sex on Fire” for as long as I’m doing here without eventually discussing the title. It’s not a particularly brilliant appelation, and indeed, Kings of Leon apparently never intended to call it that, thinking it stupid and mostly using it as a laugh amongst themselves (Caleb initially thought the whole song was garbage, apparently). But hey, it’s certainly attention-grabbing, and even it’s totally meaningless (and it is totally meaningless), sing along to it and tell me that it’s not a great chorus. In fact, the first 20 or so times I heard the song, I had no idea what they hell Caleb was singing on the verses, and I didn’t care in the slightest–I just waited a few songs for that “Youuuuuu…..YOUR SSSSSEX IS ON FIIIIIIRE!!!!” and I was happy. It’s not really like “Streetlights / People / Ohhh-WOOAAHHHH!!!!” is all that poetic, anyway.
“Sex” took a little while to catch on, and it was more of a modern rock and video hit than it was a crossover smash. But it laid the ground work, and then some, for follow-up single “Use Somebody,” which eventually took off off across all formats, especially after KoL performed the song on the MTV Movie Awards. And it stuck around forever–for context, that MTV performance happened all the way back in May, and “Use Somebody” just peaked at #4 on the charts last week. Meanwhile, the band has become an absolute phenomenon in the UK and Australia, winning awards, topping charts and headlining huge festivals. So big have the Kings gotten that their next release isn’t going to be a studio album, but a disc of remixes, including contributions from superstars Pharrell, Justin Timberlake and Linkin Park. Suffice to say, Kings of Leon are playing with the big boys now.
And though a large part of me still can’t believe any of this is happening–just this time last year I’d have laughed you off the internet if you had suggested this band even had a minor radio hit left in them, let alone superstar potential–I’m absolutely thrilled that it has. “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody” are fantastic, sure, but just as good are OBTN lesser singles “Crawl,” “Notion” and “Revelry.” I’d even pay these guys with what for me is a huge compliment–spending money to see them live. The arenas of America should be very thankful.
(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)
The List So Far (Now With Links!):
100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly”
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem”
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday”
55. Darude – “Sandstorm“
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue”
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside”
52. Luomo – “Tessio“
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids”
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)“
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius”
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love”
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars“
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue”
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up”
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic”