A return to their Southern Strokes roots with a banal serving of typically unemotional, formulaic stadium rock for hipsters who could care less.
"We try to be as real as we possibly can, because you can only put on a charade for so long before you start acting a double-charade. Then you start getting busted."
-- Nathan Followill, drummer
"I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better."
-- Sarah "Lipstick on a Pitbull" Palin, a vocal supporter of abstinence-only sex education
The music business is a land of phonies and charlatans. No one in or around it has any illusions to the contrary. These fakes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intensities. The brothers and cousin Followill are now in the bottom rung of the pecking order, no different from all the other Limp Bizkit and Avril Lavigne commodities that attempt to pass off the most expensive gear and shallow, materialistic existences as creative substance, except for the fact the Kings of Leon sincerely believe they are real artists. They exist on and believe in their own hype, an intangible juggernaut stunningly and consistently supported by the UK and Australian media while soundly denounced by the North American bastion of indie taste Pitchfork, now for the fourth time in as many full-lengths with their lowest ever rating. Yet the many devoted street teams and pocketed critics always seem to drown out the few authorities willing to put the effort in to point out how average they truly are. Lucky for us, Only by the Night is the CD that will turn the tide on that cesspool.
With the highly anticipated fourth Kings of Leon album, this quartet of Tennessee good old boys have finally created the album they were always destined to make. Youth and Young Manhood (2003) launched their major label buzz factory with a posture heavy mix of the Strokes and stolen Southern rock aesthetics. Shortly thereafter, three of the four Followill boys lost their virginity. However, despite earning the manly man merit badges they started making music for in the first place on the back of so many generous comparisons, they never truly embraced the Southern Strokes tag that hounded their early work. Over the next two albums, they did their best to get away from it by stretching their meager talents and pussy driven ambitions over sounds borrowed from U2, with whom they had also toured. With Only by the Night and whisperings of "the night time is the right time" dancing in their heads, the Kings of Leon have finally wholeheartedly embraced their inner Strokes and outer U2 (minus the relevant politics) and channeled the ensuing derivative drivel directly through the most radio friendly Nickelback form.
Now, they have only ever had three songs on every album. They write self-aggrandizing ditties about encounters with groupies, boastful yarns about how real they are, and vaguely worded nonsensical ramblings punctuated by choruses picked out of a rhyming dictionary. The lead single was originally supposed to be "Crawl". That track falls squarely in the latter category since some of the words have mildly political connotations bordering on Toby Keith style über patriotism, but they stop a few blocks short of actually saying anything due to their jumbled execution. Perhaps sensing the half-baked nature of the meaningless tune, they decided the nod would instead go to the deeply emotional "Sex on Fire", a predictable tale of tail conquered.
From the band that brought you the repetitious penis ode "Pistol of Fire" in 2004 comes the equally obvious panty tosser "Sex on Fire". The track begins on an alternating two-note rhythm guitar riff that never ventures out of its safety zone. It's given the illusion of substance by a few infrequent bars of the very same staccato stabs re-popularized by the Strokes at the turn of the millennium and traced back to the likes of Television. The lyrics (which include the limerick like chorus "You, your sex is on fire / And so were the words to transpire") are consistently juvenile, insincere, plain, and occasionally imbecilic. Caleb explained the chorus of the newest "Fire" song in a promotional YouTube home video where he said, "you know, the lyric can be taken any way and there'll be people that say it's corny or whatever, but, you know, if you've ever had really good sex, I don't think it's corny." Maybe not corny, per se, but it is undeniably trite, petty, cliché, and counterintuitive to their image as serious musicians. What's more, there are only two ways it can be taken and one of them is the clap. They'd have you believe they're the next U2 poised to change the world with the power of their craft, but they're really more like the Darkness moved to Tennessee and started letting their label cut their hair and dress them. Cock rock is still cock rock no matter how many hipsters are in the crowd.
The formula "Sex on Fire" employs is ripped straight out of the Nickelback dime a dozen hit playbook, running the textbook pattern verse-half chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus straight to number one in the UK charts. There's no intro or outro to speak of and the band's chemistry devoid playing stays at the same monotonous level throughout the entirety of its three-and-a-half-minute length, except for a slight upsurge and lame wad synth chime addition for the chorus. Every verse ends with Caleb repeating the last word for dramatic effect, but there's nothing remotely poignant about "watching", "talking", "driving", "dying", "taste it", and "greatest" in this context. The last two words don't even rhyme and the first four were all the same and by the numbers, obvious enough to cats and select monkeys as inferior poetry even in contrast to the Kings' more honest colleagues KISS and Mötley Crüe. At least those guys came out and said they just want chicks. The video for "Sex on Fire" doesn't even have a girl in it. It's got a dude eating chicken then ripping pages out of the Bible, another taking a shower in a warehouse, a bunch of winter gloves on sticks, and three guys touching Caleb until he pukes black dust in between shots of the band lip-synching. It's as pointless as it is hollow.
Speaking of unoriginal song writing, "Use Somebody" is another run-of-the-mill mainstream indie amalgam that subtly rips off a "Where the Streets Have No Name" lick for its supporting guitar line while Caleb squeaks about wanting to bone a random face in the crowd. The song is arranged almost identically to "Sex on Fire" except there is more layering and effort instrumentally, meaning they may have spent more than an afternoon writing this one, plus there's a little extremely tame soloing around the end. It will probably be the next single. Further down the tracklisting, "I Want You" says the exact same thing over a never-ending post-grunge bassline rewritten from Because of the Times throwaway "On Call" and spiced with a lazy cowbell. Ho, hum, another day at the office.
Caleb's hackneyed song writing talents further expose themselves in "Be Somebody" as he rattles off some drivel about loosening a tie and gyrating in your general direction over a textbook tribal drum track copied out of a catalogue and another Edge riff. Like "Sex on Fire", this song repeats the last line twice in the first verse, and then (this being where Caleb gets crazy experimental) he repeats the exact same line in the second verse twice again. No matter how many times you say, "I shake your way," it's still a ridiculous image. The Ministry of Silly Walks sketch immediately springs to mind.
Throughout the record, the lyrics drift from brainless to worthless, and often in the same verse. "Snow is crackling cold / She took my heart, I think she took my soul / With the moon I run / Far from the carnage of the fiery sun" from "Closer" will not grant them the immortality their videos assume. The motivation here is they want to get laid, and that shines through their every move. They think the best chance they have to continue getting laid is to pretend they have half of the vision and integrity of U2 while still appealing to the indie crowd, since they dig the younger, trendier chicks. Hence, "17" is about trying to impregnate a 17-year-old girl, and since the Republican overlords wholly endorse abstinence-only sex "education" across America, it's an achievable goal. I mean, if an ultraconservative governor of Alaska and vice-presidential nominee can't teach her underage daughter to avoid the baby bullet with the help of abstinence-only programs, what chance does anyone else in the world have against a touring rock band?
Now, even though Caleb is one of the worst singers and lyricists this side of Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson, it's not that the Kings of Leon are completely untalented musicians. Their live-off-the-floor studio recordings have always brought to the table something intangibly vibrant (or throbbing, if you will) over their first three albums, despite Caleb's voice constantly defaulting to piercing shrieks as on the singles "Charmer" and "Trani" as his only means of conveying "real" human emotion. They can play as good as Fall Out Boy or Nickelback. However, compared only to their own catalogue, the instrumentals on this album sound hollow and feebly constructed like a house of pornographic playing cards, typical for any carbon copy Chad Krueger project. Caleb mostly manages to keep his obtuse shrilling in check, instead using a falsetto lilt to highlight random words and the chorus in every single song. With Ethan Johns out of the picture, the production is thin at best, using the same reverb on the vocals as everything else all the time while the drums sound plastic.
Where surprises could be found with each previous release to give even casual fans something to appreciate, Only by the Night delivers an even serving of Ritalin coma stadium rock destined to raise their prime age demographic. I can't see this getting them invited to a UN meeting any time soon, but the Hard Rock Café will surely save them a table.