Review Summary: Once again, the Followill brothers improve exponentially.
The curious thing about claiming the title of 'most improved' is that it means admitting two things; that you once sucked, and that if you want to be considered truly great then it means that you need to keep improving. This is how posterity meets Kings of Leon in 2008 - unquestionably 2007's most improved band, their last album Because of the Times
was so exciting and surprising not just because it came from a band who were previously so incompetent, but also because it appeared to promise that the necessary upward curve would undoubtedly follow. For a band who'd had a hit single with a song containing just two notes, and a singer who had been doing a seriously convincing impression of somebody who can't sing, that was crucial. Because of the Times
was no one-shot wonder album that left the band with nowhere to go; it genuinely sounded like a step on the way to bigger things.
The headline spot at this year's Glastonbury noted as an aside, those bigger things have arrived with Only by the Night
. Literally everything about this record is bigger than all its predecessors - the melodic scope, the ambition, the production, the lyrical range, the pool of influences, the lot. And accordingly, it's better to boot, with each of the first six songs outstanding in its own right. Opening track "Closer" rides a Tom Morello-in-Audioslave-ballad-mode guitar line to stunning effect, "Crawl" is a glammy relative of The Who's "The Seeker", "Sex on Fire" is one of the most immediately arresting singles released all year, "Use Somebody" is a tender, big-hearted ballad that works as an approximation of what Coldplay's Parachutes
might have sounded like if it had the ambition and production of Viva la Vida
, and so on. And while the quality may slump slightly on one or two later tracks ("I Want You" sets up a good idea and then goes nowhere with it), the highlights of this album come thick and fast. It's always impressive, occasionally breathtaking.
What binds it all together, though, is Caleb Followill, who quite simply turns in a performance you'd never have imagined possible. Once upon a time, his singing style consisted of deliberately garbling words he seemed embarrassed by and relying on ticks and quirks to lend his band's music a degree of personality. Not any more; finally, Caleb Followill has discovered his true identity as a vocalist. Throughout this record, he is confident, clear, and proud, discovering and displaying unexpected subtleties in his bluesy rasp. It's actually a little hard to focus on what the rest of the band are doing for the first couple of listens, because his presence is so dominant. His vocal melodies, too, are more expressive, expansive, and considered than they've been before, or that they've even hinted at being before. And with lyrics like those on "Cold Desert" ('Jesus never loved me/No-one ever carried my load')? Quite honestly this is the best performance from a rock frontman I've heard in 2008.
As for the band? On their last album, they showed that they were turning into the kind of rock band that frequently nods toward the work of other great artists without ever outright imitating them - in other words, the best kind. That trend continues here. Interpol and U2 remain as perhaps the two biggest influences, as they were on Because of the Times
, but there are all sorts of influences working alongside one another here. "Revelry"'s exotic guitar sweep is surely a result of listening intently to Arcade Fire, the snarling bassline on "Crawl" can be traced to Radiohead's "Bodysnatchers" (in tone, at least), while some of the more skyscraping melodies and fiery lyrics call to mind Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and Tom Petty. And throughout, bassist Jared Followill conjures up reminders of Queen's John Deacon, nowhere moreso than on "Seventeen".
If the second half of this record was as good as the first I'd probably be proclaiming it as the rock album of the year. It may yet claim that crown anyway. As it is, it's a very fine record from a band who are seemingly growing in stature, confidence, and ability by the day. And to think, this is the same band that once generated so much skepticism in some quarters that they were branded garage rock's answer to Milli Vanilli. If you were one of the people who saw past the image and the immaturity back in those heady days of 2003, and predicted that Kings of Leon would go on to have a long, fruitful career, then I doff my cap to you.