Once a band passes the three album mark, there always seems to be an unspoken expectation for them to evolve or mature. Unfortunately, for many acts, this means slowing it down or getting “serious.” On Only By The Night, Tennessee bred Kings of Leon’s fourth album, they do just that, sludging up its bathtub of adrenaline laced moonshine with thick, viscous molasses.
That’s not to say that this was unexpected. The Kings have been gravitating toward something more cohesive its whole career. The band’s 2003 debut Youth and Young Manhood was a schizophrenic bar brawl, shifting backwoods genres by the time the next song began. But each of its subsequent releases developed a fuller, more restrained sound while still remaining firmly rooted in the garage, or in the Kings’ case, the woodshed. Only By The Night continues the tightening trend (less jamming, more direct tunes), but slops a mound of New Wave synthesizer and ethereal U2 guitar onto every track. There’s nothing wrong with a consistent sound, (Hell, Tom Waits has been milking the Carnival Barker pony for over a decade now) but in the case of these songs, everything pretty much stays the same. Tracks like “Manhattan” and even the more upbeat “Be Somebody” are saddled with plodding bass lines punctuated every now and then by a screeching note from a guitar that sounds like it’s being played from the bottom of a well. Apparently for many bands, deepening your sound means imitating The Edge.
But frontman Caleb Followill is far from Bono. His garbled growl fails to match up with the sterile, moody production. Even worse is that his usual jambalaya slur is gone. That’s right, for the first time, you can actually understand he’s saying.
I’ve always been a fan of Followill’s sporadic, slobbering bark, but here it has vanished, stripped away in favor of vocals that finally expose his cringe-inducing lyrics. Let’s face it, the Kings have never been known for its subject matter. In fact, the only thing that ever made Followill’s words bearable in the first place was that you could never decipher them. It never mattered that you couldn’t tell what he was talking about because in the bottom of your heart, you never really wanted to. All that mattered was the feel good boogie evoked by his off kilter pronunciation. But here, everything becomes crystal. And lines like “this sex is on fire” (from their first single, you guessed it, “Sex On Fire”) and “You know I’m a dancing machine with fire in my bones and the sweet taste of kerosene” (“Revelry“) would sound better buried under a prickly wall of twangy guitars and rockabilly drums than booming over the murky background music of an 80’s goth prom.
As expected, there are some gems in this bogged down coal mine. “Closer”, with its reverberating space guitar and ambient effects, almost manages to sound haunting. But Followill’s dead-in-the-water phrases like “stranded in this spooky town” keep the song from packing any sort of emotional punch. He always settles for telling us how lonely and scary everything is instead of showing us with eerie imagery. The vague nature of his lyrics keep anything from sounding sincere, no matter how frightened he really might be.
Other highlights include “Crawl” and “I Want You”, both dancing shadows of the Kings’ old possum swingin’ groove, but for the most part, Only By The Night is retro Southern mud. Try not to get stuck in it.