Kings of Leon

Only By the Night

(Interscope; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 29 September 2008

Give Kings of Leon credit: they’re on their fourth album in five years, something nobody could have imagined back in 2003 when they were little more than Southern-fried caricatures tailor made for the British music press. And while their (enjoyable) debut failed to contain much beyond lifted Stones riffs and was largely ghost-written, albums two and three actually cracked the 80% CMG range and still hold up on repeated listens. Last year’s Because of the Times was particularly excellent, matching Southern pedigree to both Pixies bluster and disco ballads while displaying a depth and variety of songwriting that few believed these guys capable of. That album established them as a legitimate American Rock Band worth following, despite their being far more popular in Europe. CMG staffers were looking forward to Only By the Night‘s release. This is what matters.

At roughly a year and a half, the lag time between Times and Night was minimal even by these guys’ standards. The quick turnaround is supposedly attributed to the typical scenario of the band writing demos that they were simply too excited about not to record, in addition to newfound degrees of (powder-less, at least) sobriety. Unfortunately, for the majority of Only By the Night the Kings are at a juncture where they’re a little too content with the sleepier aspects of Because of the Times, daring to stretch that album’s considerably groggier side B to full record’s length. It also contains some of their most obvious attempts at commercial grasping, while they utterly neglect to, you know, rock the fuck out like they should.

I emphasize that Kings of Leon are unquestionably a Rock Band, because while Because of the Times saw them expanding their oeuvre to contain tender ballads and guitar washes both jagged and atmospheric, they’re still at their best when kicking ass. I would even argue that Times‘s downtrodden second half was saved by the inclusion of “Camaro,” the kind of “hot girls, hot cars” song the Kings are apt at dropping almost somnambulantly. Here, they too often sound vindicated, convinced that big MOR ballads are the route to commercial acceptance in the States, oblivious to the fact that John Mayer (and eventually David Cook) already has that market cornered.

In their defense, Night‘s kick off is excellent. Not for nothing that the first song is entitled “Closer”; it’s a slow-burning piece of Southern goth that if sung in a Manc accent could surely pass for a rope’s end Joy Division dirge. Then the record peaks early with “Crawl,” which despite containing some asinine political lyrics about “the red and the white and abused!” remains a neck-snapping fuzz groove suggesting Fugazi’s rhythm section jamming on Physical Graffiti (1975). “Sex on Fire” is fun as the first single, an Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)-style rocker replete with Caleb Followill doing his best to let the listener know that this sex is most indeed “on fiiiiiiyaaah!”

But “Use Somebody” is a blatant stab at a big radio rock ballad. That, in and of itself, is not an awful thing, but Followill is no Bob Seger, or even Michael McDonald, and he lacks both the pipes and soul to make it convincing. Further, the guitars end up sounding like watered down Kevin Shields riffs, hinting that the Kings don’t really know the proper path to radio salvation besides. Sigh: The remainder of Only By the Night swings between stadium-ready pap and non-descript balladry, the one constant being Jared Followill’s consistently awesome basslines. Seriously, I don’t know what they’re feeding this kid, but he’s always way high up in the mix and his fret work crackles with a variety and litheness that suggests he’d have been an excellent Muscle Shoals session man had he been born a few decades earlier. Thank you, Jared.

One would hope that Kings of Leon will look back after a long career and realize that most of these songs are less than hot. “Revelry,” “17,” and “I Want You” all consist of the faux-redneck ballads that Kid Rock puts on his records to get housewives to buy them, but even he’d probably refrain from turning “17” into a bizarre Christmas Carol by adding what sounds like sleigh bells. And the “Jesus don’t love me!” woe of closer “Cold Desert” would border on unlistenable parody were it not for the sweet bass solo in the outro. “Manhattan” is a decent slab of jangle funk, and “Notion” is ok, but the urge to air guitar on anything past “Sex on Fire” is alarmingly absent.

I have enough faith in this band to presume they’ll eventually see Only By the Night for what it is, as a fourth album hiccup that fails to play to their strengths. I can understand their desire for more widespread acceptance in the States; it has to be a little disheartening for good ‘ol boys like the Kings to sell out stadiums across the pond and be forced to play large theaters in North America. But tepid AOR balladry isn’t going to get it done. Us Yanks already have Daughtry for that shit.

:: myspace.com/kingsofleon