Milam’s Song of the Week
…in which a prodigiously talented young songwriter (me) writes effusively about someone else’s stuff. This week: Kings of Leon, “Arizona”
For those who may not know, Kings of Leon emerged in 2002, lumped into the “neo-garage” revival with The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives, and The Everyone Else. Dubbed the “Southern-fried Strokes,” they released Youth and Young Manhood in 2002. Their sophomore release Aha Shake Heartbreak earned them increased critical acclaim and a wider audience, opening for U2 and later Robert Zimmerdylan. While press bandits everywhere slobbered about their “story” (three brothers and a cousin grow up on the road with their traveling evangelical preacher father man, find the devil’s music and set out for Nashville), most critics ignored what would actually matter: the songs are good, the band is tight, and these guys know what they’re doing. When their third album, Because of the Times, hit the racks in April, I listened optimistically and found an album with an expansive sound, confident performances, imaginative arrangements, and Rubbermaid-tight songwriting.
“Arizona,” the album’s closer, is no new theme for Kings of Leon; they almost exclusively write about girls, escape, and escaping from girls. This song starts with a single chord, which fades to reveal the steady muted strumming beneath. As the progression winds its way up, then briefly down, then up, finally resolving, we have our opening cadence–a musical device that actually enacts the steady desire for movement. The drums follow, sparse but resounding, and set our feet moving. When the lead guitar’s cadence finally comes (00:26), we finally have the musical representation of this song’s theme: it gorgeously, painfully reaches for resolution. The bassline, at this point in the song, is a pulsating repetition–only to be varied importantly later.
Caleb Followill’s melody harmonizes with the rhythm guitar’s cadence. Like the lead guitar, it works in tandem with the music, but still seeks to occupy a different space. The opening verse puts us in a familiar lyrical territory: there’s a girl, there’s train imagery, and the speaker is in a stagnant situation with a neurotic girl and has a good deal of anxiety. But the music’s composition–creating sameness and repetition, then yearning for variation and escape–really tell the story here more than Followill’s lyrics. The first percussive variation we have comes in the second verse, a rapid roll that falls on the word “GO.” It’s no coincidence that the song’s backbeat becomes anxious when Followill says what he’s thinking.
At 2:20, we enter a very brief interlude. Though the music itself is practically identical to the verse’s, the performance of it is audibly different; the cadence that was once plodding, somber, and ominous is now bouncy and energetic, having fun within the confines of its own tune. This moment of contentment quickly vanishes as the third and final verse begins, same as the last two.
When it finishes without any lyrical revelations, the same two-part lead riff follows. Only this time, instead of quieting itself for another verse, it launches into an extended solo (3:20). The bass here changes its line, too, and takes a higher, more melodic route. As the lead guitar works beautifully over the song’s foundation–referencing its previous riff while expanding upon it–the song’s theme is in high relief. After an entire episode of gorgeous routine and well-crafted foreshadowing, our tune has broken free of itself and escaped. A broken down section (3:47) quiets the lead and realigns the bass with its old tune, suggesting stalled progress, doubt, even fear. Here, though, the drumming and bassline finally vary and build, leading us into the outtro.
The guitar work here is never lightning-fast. It never “shreds.” It doesn’t sport any technically proficient wizardry. Instead, it simply, perfectly, and beautifully supports the song. Music, at its best, can magically give a sound, voice, and texture to a specific emotion. In “Arizona,” Kings of Leon show us what escape sounds like to them–anxious, hesitant, inevitable, doubtful, joyful, explosive, gorgeous, and sad at once. Mostly, it just sounds good.