Kings of Leon return with the release of their highly anticipated fourth album 'Only By The Night' on 22nd September through Columbia Records. 'Only By The Night' is a bold and expansive sonic statement that looks set to solidify Kings of Leon's position as one of the most important international acts of 2008 and beyond. It follows rapidly in the footsteps of the bands previous albums 'Youth And Young Manhood', 'Aha Shake Heartbreak' & 'Because Of The Times', which have quickly established them as one of the most prolific and acclaimed acts around.
Review by Andrew Leahey
With 2007's Because of the Times, Kings of Leon ventured out of the garage and into the arena. Tracks like "Black Thumbnail" and "Camaro" were bold anthemic rock songs that built upon the barnyard stomp of Youth & Young Manhood, and Because of the Times topped the U.K. charts upon its debut, officially crowning the Kings as rock & roll royalty in the process. Only by the Night arrives one year later, marking the band's fastest turnaround between albums; it also furthers the epic sound that Times introduced, flaunting a set of ringing guitars and radio-ready melodies that push the band away from the Allman Brothers' camp. If anything, much of this album takes up residence in U2's cathedral, particularly during the one-two-three punch of "Sex on Fire," "Use Somebody," and "Manhattan." Caleb Followill doesn't adopt Bono's political agenda, but the same sort of uplift exists throughout the record, which -- during its best moments -- rivals Aha Shake Heartbreak as the band's best work to date.
Like many big-sounding albums, Only by the Night is a polarizing piece of work, one that targets new fans at the expense of those who wish Kings of Leon had never shaved their beards or discovered post-'70s rock. To rope in the skeptics, the strongest tracks are pushed toward the album's first half. "Crawl" flexes the band's rock & roll muscle, melding Led Zeppelin-styled crunch with the experimental guitar buzz of U2's Achtung Baby, while "Sex on Fire" makes up for its goofy title with a meteoric chorus tailored to Caleb's voice. (He sounds fantastic throughout the record, even if his vocals continue to be garbled by some untraceable accent, as if he's auditioning for the Jodie Foster role in a Broadway adaptation of Nell.) Rounding out the hit-filled segment are "Use Somebody" and "Manhattan," where Matthew Followill cloaks his guitar riffs in reverb and bassist Jared Followill takes the spotlight sporadically, popping up for quick melodic fills before ducking back into the mix. While past Kings of Leon albums concerned themselves with alcohol, women, and other hedonistic themes, those two songs are nothing but pop/rock grandeur, and Caleb howls their hopeful lyrics like Bono's American-born cousin. Only by the Night focuses on textures and experimentation during the album's latter half, but most songs still deliver some sort of Technicolor melody, from "Notion" (one of the only tracks featuring piano) to the unexpected chorus of "Be Somebody." Taken as a whole, Only by the Night targets the audience that approved Kings of Leon's sonic shift in 2007, leaving older fans free to damn these tracks for their consciously grand approach. Yes, the album is indebted to U2. Yes, it briefly veers close to the same territory occupied by Meat Loaf and Journey, if only in the passion of Caleb's voice. But Only by the Night is still a potent Kings of Leon record, and the guys have never defined their ambition so clearly before.
Kings of Leon:
Only By the Night
After years spent building a career on the enduringly romanticized Stillwater archetype, Kings of Leon have laterally shifted from one easily understood linear narrative (festival band) to another (arena rock band). Dropping the transparently hayseed act, the band could have turned an artistic corner; yet the first single from Only By the Night is called "Sex on Fire", so if there was any debate about whether Kings of Leon are in on their own joke, I think it can be put to rest. If we're misreading them, we're missing out on one corker of a comedy album based on an "SNL"-level premise: What if Bono got lost in the Blue Ridge Mountains and was replaced by a local yokel? (Suggested band name: Y'All2.)
But even the move from "southern Strokes" to "southern U2" is way better in theory than in practice-- these are the same clunky Kings of Leon songs, just now presented in an incredibly weird context. It all starts with Caleb Followill's never-ending need to play to type, and if you've kept up to this point, you know the drill-- though his band has toured the world several times over, dude can't see past his own dick. He sings terribly on Only By the Night, any modicum of youth and young manhood compromised by "real talk" overemoting and an accent that seems to have no geographical origin.
But why go on when Followill is more than happy to hoist himself on his own petard, doling his typical mix of stock characterization, open misogyny, and bizarre non-sequitirs. You can hear the brooms sweeping as the lonesome guitars of "Revelry" attempt some sort of last-call poignancy, but it's spoiled from the time Followill opens a mouth full of Meatloaf-- "What a night for a dance, you know I'm a dancin' machine/ With the fire in my bones and the sweet taste of kerosene." This goes on before you get the dominant KoL ethos on the chorus: "With the hardest of hearts I still feel full of pain/ See the time we shared it was precious to me/ But all the while I was dreaming of revelry." It's basically "The One I Love" with no riff and no irony.
Meanwhile, "Sex on Fire" turns out to be disturbingly literal, while the dopey travelogue of "Manhattan" has Caleb waxing with the naïve enthusiasm of a senior yearbook quote: "We're gonna set this fire we're gonna stoke it up/ We're gonna sip this wine and pass the cup/ We're gonna show this town how to kiss these stars," and it's nearly impossible to stifle your laughter when he punctuates each verse with a smarmy soul-papa "I SAAAAIIIID!" All that's missing is the attendant video where Caleb walks the NYC streets and gives dap to passers-by while the band taps away at their idea of funk. You'd figure "17" would be right in their wheelhouse, because what's a better Kings of Leon topic than underage pussy? But after the first line (I'll spot you "Winger" as a hint and let you guess what it is), it just sort of trails off, leaving the last memorable moment of an album that still has about 20 minutes to go.
No longer steeped in Dixieland signifers, Kings of Leon now weirdly owe a debt to Washington state. If the rumbling toms, splashy cymbals, and cascading synth strings of songs like "Notion" or "I Want You" sound familiar, I'm willing to bet you have a copy of Sunny Day Real Esate's The Rising Tide or a recent Death Cab record. Strange bedfellows, and not really the right ones-- while the latter two were trying to adjust their modest hooks and personal lyrics to a larger scale, Kings of Leon have always been as emotionally cavernous as the drum sound here, and when the tempo slows, ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in swamp. Followill is haunted by all that he can't leave behind, trying to have it both ways with riffs that are supposed to bellow with reverb and bite with distortion. The band never soars, instead mostly muddling in a bog of muffled echo that liberally applies Caleb's cottonmouth to every other instrument.
At its best, Only By the Night at least gives the impression that Kings of Leon is actually an interesting band that would be exponentially and immediately improved with someone even average at the controls (call it the Tavaris Jackson Corollary). Musically, "Closer" sets the bar unrealistically high for the rest of the album, building on squeaking, modulated keys, tricky polyrhythms, and a solid melody unfortunately piledrived by Followill's self-pity ("You took my heart and you took my soul.../ Leaving me stranded in love on my own"). "Crawl" could pass for something off the first Secret Machines record with its hydraulic, distorted bass and hotly mixed percussion, but even before they can seal the deal with some dubious conspiracy mongering (something about the red, white, and blue crucifying you), you get the usual KoL idea of sweetalk: "You better learn to crawl before I walk away." Next thing you know, "Sex on Fire" starts and Kings of Leon's fourth album has peaked after seven minutes. Surely, we can do better for the platonic ideal of a rock band than four guys gunning for a spot rightfully inhabited by My Morning Jacket but instead coming up with the best songs 3 Doors Down never wrote.
- Ian Cohen, September 16, 2008