Review Summary: Kings of Leon “mature” on their fourth full-length, deciding to ape U2 rather than The Strokes this time around. (3.5/10)
I’ll be honest, I actually used to dig Kings of Leon a few years back. While the smarmy, arty-farty American music reviewers were smashing the Followill brothers for their “Southern Strokes” shtick on Youth and Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak, I always had thought that these four sex-craved dummies were charming. They were like your screw-up older cousin; sure they weren’t doing the “right” thing (i.e. recycling a tired act that has been done better countless times before), but you couldn’t help but love them for their earnesty and unabashed demeanor. When they sang about how “Molly’s chambers gonna change your mind”, they meant exactly what you thought they meant, and I’ll be damned if “The Bucket” isn’t one of the best songs of the decade, even if it was the peak of the Kings’ Strokes-hacking. Maybe I should be ashamed of this after listening to the disaster that is Only by the Night, but I thought how it was nice how [lead singer] Caleb Followill wasn’t afraid (was dumb enough?) to name a song “Pistol of Fire”, and get by off of his band’s raucous energy and catchy-enough, if simplistic, hooks.
Well, maybe it’s just because of the times (eh??), but Kings of Leon aren’t too loveable anymore. Now they’re one of those fancy, Grammy-nominated bands you’ll see on VH1 at 6 AM every morning, squeezed in between Katy Perry and Black Eyed Peas. For whatever reason, the music media machine decided that these four had mainstream rock appeal, and it seems so far that they’re right. Your mom has probably asked you about that band “that sings that Fire Sex song” at some point, and your younger sister probably feels a certain sense of entitlement for this band with their crossover effort. The question now becomes, how could a band that wrote as obnoxious (in the good, punk, way) a song as “Four Kicks” suddenly be pushed forward alongside Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, and the like as the top “rock” bands in the country?
On Only by the Night, Kings of Leon do this by changing their style up in the most predictable way possible, by creating a mediocre arena-rock sound similar, but not nearly equal, to U2 and Interpol. Lead single “Sex on Fire” is the song that has been generating the most buzz for the band, led by its pedestrian, two-note verse riff, and Caleb’s over-the-top vocal, which is a standard for the album as a whole. The lyrics are aimless, as always, with Followill bluntly thinking with his dick first and musical sensibilities second. I’m sure mothers and little girls everywhere will quickly swoon over Caleb’s swagger and soulful croon on this release, and this love is deserved. Caleb’s wailing is strangely listenable and horrific at the same time at many points on Only by the Night, and even if he is a little theatrical, nobody can say that he isn’t a decent “frontman”. The problem is that he too often comes across as a priest who recently found out what he was missing out on with the whole “celibacy thing”, and is desperately trying to make up for lost time. “The dark of the alley, the breaking of day/ The head while I’m driving, I’m driving”, he yelps on “Sex on Fire”, which would surely make (most of) those same mothers and little girls have a hard time swallowing (had to) their preconceived notions about the hunks they heard rocking out on top 40 radio this morning.
So gentlemen, if you’re reading, I get it, you like to f***. You like to f*** after a night of partying (“Manhattan”); you like to f*** your underage groupies (“17”); you like to turn down girls you’ve already f***ed so you can go f*** different ones (“Revelry”). This is all well and good, and on their earlier albums it could be excused, but what makes Only by the Night so disengaging is that Kings of Leon’s consistently repetitive and mediocre melodic and songwriting chops in this U2-hack, arena-rock genre create an air of pretension that tries to convince the listener that these aren’t songs about just f***ing, but about ~emotions, man~. This could be excusable, but again, the lyrics have zero emotional weight to carry around. It doesn't help that none of the four bandmates are especially talented with their instruments either; there aren't many real stand-out, signature riffs or melodies to be found, and we find each member gliding by on recycled tricks and effects. The band creates no sense of atmosphere, so channeling this longing they are supposedly trying to convey falls short here as well. What we’re left with are an album of tracks that are just “there”, bogged down by a half-assed attempt to create a “somber” mood, while simultaneously making a half-assed attempt to keep the punk energy that highlighted "Manhood" and "Heartbreak". With the exception of “Closer”, which creates at least somewhat of the “spooky town” feeling Caleb nonsensically sings about with its reverb drenched opening riff, every one of these songs fail at really grabbing the listener’s attention and emotions. It doesn’t help that the “message” that these guys are trying to convey is really a thinly-veiled 11-track request for head after the show, of course.
It really is disappointing to see a band that had at least a few positives going for it take such a poor turn with an effort like this. The ramshackle, pick-up-and-play-no-matter-how-dumb-it-is attitude of Kings of Leon’s earlier albums has been pushed to the wayside in favor of an attempt to “mature”, which in this case takes the fun out of their horny stupidity. With the failure that is Only by the Night, one can only wonder if “maturity” was really the best idea musically for the Followill clan.