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“Looking back on Kings of Leon’s ‘Joe’s Head’ after 15 Years, or, on the Death of the Non-Douche-Bag”

As you may have noticed, in this Internet era, lots of people are saying a lot of mind-bogglingly douchey sh** all the time. Here’s a brief list of awful things I’ve heard in the last year and a half or so, perhaps paraphrased in order to temporally fit all this crap on one page without having to do an inordinate amount of research:

– Rolling Stone saying that “Jack White used to get in brawls, back when dudes and brawls were still a thing.”

– Some a**wipe sports publication making fun of Michigan football for “not having enough off-the-field drama,” this statement taking place mind you during a season in which the starting quarterback Wilton Speight incurred three fractured vertebrae in the game against Purdue.

– Some douche bag on SB Nation or something saying that NFL games can be “really boring.”

– The guy from Consequence of Sound calling The Dandy Warhols’ Courtney Taylor-Taylor “as much of a joke as the rest of us,” in that same negative review for Distortland beginning the article with a rebuttal of Taylor-Taylor’s remission that “I’m too old for this”, which, mind you, comes at the very final moment on the entire album.

Consequence of Sound in a negative review of Meat Puppets – Sewn Together negatively comparing them to The Vaselines for the sole reason of both bands appearing on Nirvana’s unplugged album and thereby being “trendy,” or some in-depth journalistic genius like that.

Noisey taking their own amateurish hacksaw to Pete Doherty for something he said in an interview when he was all of… 17 years old (which would be 21 years ago, as it was concurrent with Oasis’ release of Be Here Now), calling Noel Gallagher the “poet” of the band and Liam Gallagher the “town crier,” gleaning from an Umberto Eco discourse.

– People’s acceptance of “sy borg” as a musical entity or identity moniker for pop stars who are then purportedly discussed seriously.

Pitchfork not getting that Modest Mouse lead singer Isaac Brock were assuming the perspective of someone else, a criminal rapist (how they miss that given the song title is beyond me), in “Pistol (A. Cunanan, Miami, FL. 1996).”

 

So anyway, clearly the list goes on and on, but specifically, my first and last premises here will be the most important for purposes of this particular post. I bring in a mention of the last quote here in what will be a transition to a discussion of the Kings of Leon song “Joe’s Head.”
To be honest, the fall of 2003, my sophomore year in college, is sort of a blur of beer, weed and shrooms, so my memory of this album can be a little bit foggy, maybe excepting a couple strong notions of “Dusty” as a really underrating song and then “Happy Alone” perfectly soundtracking the thawing of snow the following spring. With this the case, somehow “Joe’s Head” flew over that of mine big time, a couple other general favorites being definitely the first song and “Trani.”
I actually went on the record calling the Kings of Leon the worst band on the planet, then, in 2010, following what for me was a seismic wave of experimental indie pop in my own collection, by comparison, and of course those atrocious songs like “Sex on Fire” and that other crap song and what I found to be a SLIGHTLY overrated sophomore album Aha Shake Heartbreak.
Something, then, anyway, led me back to this Youth & Young Manhood (2003) in the last year or so. In picking up the biography on the band I learned that while Pitchfork really dug their nails into the album upon its release, the band did blow up in Britain right away, big time (the writer of the book on the band was British, actually). Just listen to the first song right away: Matthew Followill really shreds on guitar, but of equal importance is Caleb and Nathan Followill’s knack for the song structure, in this case taking the precocious form of the second chorus’ addenda of “You’re giving all your cinnamon away”, hence rendering it twice the length of the first chorus in a nice little variation. Anybody who passed seventh grade algebra should be able to notice this amusing little flair, or so you’d think.
Anyway, as I generally allude to earlier, “Joe’s Head” is my current favorite on this album now by a considerable margin, an album by a band which was right away invited by The Strokes to open, The Strokes then being an entity critically acclaimed across the boards. Joel McIver in Kings of Leon: Holy Rock & Rollers, which is the book I lazily mention earlier, does a nice job of elucidating the band’s Velvet Underground influence, which I believe, though I don’t have a copy with me, was the result of some cousin/producer/bookie/friend type figure in their lives who lived in Nashville, the band’s hometown. Nowhere, with the possible exception of “Happy Alone,” is this more evident than on “Joe’s Head,” a grunge-swagger 100-meter-dash written in triumphant, Dionysian major chords something like “Sweet Jane” with the effective melancholy of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
One thing I like about “Joe’s Head” is that it’s personal and intimate, whether or not it actually regards somebody singer Caleb Followill personally knew (in the spirit of true, catalyzing art such a factoid shouldn’t matter). There’s this scene set in the lyrics of a drinking party in winter or late fall, literally a “dark” time of year [“Rain falls down (it’s) freezing / (It’s) sticking like (the) snow”]. Again, the music itself is not despondent. It gets back to a basic praise once uttered about Modest Mouse and their doomsaying, tenaciously pessimistic lyrics, by Ryan Schreiber, that “Any other band would have put this over mopey minor chords.”
The song moves along with litheness and rock and roll machismo, progressing over creative verse structures into a chorus of classic tragedy: “This is the way of the world Joe said / Had to put a bullet into his head”, which, upon research, though you can’t really understand them when he says them, actually reveal the song title to be not something uttered within the song at all, but rather a phonetic approximation of the swirling gaggle of narration and rhetoric being hurled forth, in pop form.
I hadn’t originally planned on ranking my separate “favorite moments” from this song, but now I see in light of the basic structure of this blog post that such a thing will be necessary, so now I’ll come to my second favorite, which is Caleb Followill’s verse two utterance of “Good friends ‘til the end”. Now, this brings me to that matter of Modest Mouse’s “Pistol” and critic’s not being able to tell displaced perspective if it splashes them in the face like a double Royal Crown and coke. The fact of Followill’s line here being relevant to the rest of the song, I don’t think is deniable. It is, however, HUMOROUS, which indeed renders this number “tragicomic,” which I believe rock and roll has to be, or should be, in a sense. Followill’s sarcasm that the “whiskey” makes these individuals “Good friends ‘til the end” is evident in his vocal, which evades melody and takes the form of somebody just saying a smart-a** quip. Again, in my estimation, many of today’s critics would miss that this is sarcasm, would dismiss the importance of the tone in Followill’s voice, and would just so gnashingly cling to the desire to be “cool” around girls dressed in yoga pants that they’re basically completely braindead. Then, we get into the idea of whether people’s conception of “friend” is even still extant.
To move along, then, there’s absolutely no denying the awesomeness of the last chorus of this song, which initiates a twinge of ire in me given that Pitchfork bashed this album, one I’ve always liked, one which spawned me into seeing a headlining gig of theirs at the Music Mill in Indianapolis and to burn the CD for my Dad (who ended up being a little luke warm on that band). The final chorus mimics the penultimate one, embodying a variation in the form of Followill’s voice escalating to an animalistic, disarming level of aggression and emotiveness.
One cool thing about “Joe’s Head” in general is that Followill basically sings the verses, which are powered in part by that incessant, syncopated guitar riff like a more rhythmic incarnation of The Strokes (who themselves were obviously heavily influenced by VU) but then raps the choruses. Well in the case of the final installment, the rap evolves into this predatory primal cry, Followill standing before this murder scene a man moved to an artistically transcendent place before the coldness of humanity. And there’s no denying any of this. It’s all written plainly in the song. Today, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Kings of Leon’s Youth & Young Manhood. Many thanks go to Rolling Stone for sharing.

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