Only by the Night
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Reviewed by James B. Eldred
The brothers and cousin Followill aren't the first to experience this. Jimi Hendrix had to go to London in order to get recognized, so maybe their success in the UK means something. Of course, the Stray Cats also found fame and fortune overseas before they hit it big in America, so maybe it doesn't mean much of anything at all.
Still, their fragmented fame is perplexing. Why are they so big in Europe and Australia, but not in America? They're not even popular with most critics in the States, despite receiving ringing endorsements from respected artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Modest Mouse. Most American critics dismiss them as a Southern version of the Strokes, and while that may have been true with their first two albums, their third release, Because of the Times, blew the lid off that theory. Throwing away the garage rock shackles of the past, the boys from Tennessee embraced their overseas celebrity, crafting a collection of big, epic rock songs tailor-made to play in sold-out stadiums.
Only by the Night continues that trend, moving the band even further away from its Southern rock roots, with Caleb's unique slurring vocals the only remnant of the early Youth and Young Manhood days. The extended time the band has spent in the UK has apparently rubbed off on their music, as Kings of Leon have apparently ditched nearly all of their early influences and moved on to greener, more British pastures, particularly Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, and even a little bit of Bauhaus.
Caleb's overwhelming voice may hide these influences at first. But they're there. The dissonant, arching riffs of “Manhattan” and “Cold Desert” are unmistakable; these boys have been listening to “The Killing Moon” and liking it. But they don't stop at imitation. They tweak the classic post-punk sound, sliding it over to the pop realm ever so slightly, creating anthemic sure-fire crowd pleasures. “Sex on Fire,” from it's obvious “let's go screw” lyrics to the arching guitars and wailing chorus it was designed as a song to get an arena crowd on its feet. “Use Somebody” takes it even further, driving the band into Coldplay/U2 territory in terms of unapologetic crowd-pleasing excess, but pulling back just enough to retain a little bit of edge. Still, when Caleb sings “I could use somebody / Someone like you,” it’s followed by rising, almost choral, crescendos that will undoubtedly be accompanied by rising stage lights come time for the world tour/iPod commercial.
While the band has grown by leaps and bounds musically, the pace of its lyrical development is a bit slower. Most of the songs on Only by the Night are about how much Caleb wants to have sex (“I Want You”), loves having sex (“Sex on Fire”), or can't have sex (“17”), the last of which is about as deep and meaningful as the Winger song with which it shares its name. However, there are signs of improvement: “Crawl” is a particularly vicious statement on American politics (“The red and the whites and abused / The crucified USA / I said the prophecy unfolds / All hell is surely on its way”) while “Closer” is the best pop song that just might be about vampires since “Possum Kingdom.”
The one thing that hasn't changed at all is Caleb Followill's voice. It's still a mess of a garbled Southern drawl, the kind of voice that makes lyric sheets an absolute necessity. If you couldn't stand it before, you aren't going to stand it now.
That's kind of a stupid reason to hate on a band, though, and not a very consistent one, considering how many people have embraced other mangled-voice poets such as Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder. Kings of Leon have consistently grown and evolved with each of the albums, and with Only by the Night, they have sonically grown into an arena-rock powerhouse band, finally developing a sound big enough to match their overseas popularity. They might never be huge in the States, but if they keep putting out albums like this one, it will be ever harder to figure out why.