Behold Kings of Leon. Of Tennessee. Of Youth and Young Manhood. Of Aha Shake Heartbreak. Of Because of the Times. Of 2003's retro-rock revival. Of the sons-of-a-preacher backstory and easy press clips. Of touring with Dylan, Pearl Jam, U2. Of infantile vocals and adult content. Of greasy guitars and echoplex drum sounds. Of this entry. Of "meditations on teenage girls from small towns everywhere." Of infantile vocals and adult content. The band too big to be credible, too small to be pop, too southern to be smart, too retro to be hip, too visceral to be cerebral, too contrived to be real.
Behold them now, freshly and immediately, or find yourself alone in the rearview. Only By the Night, their fourth record, has been out for a month and if it tells us anything, it's this: Kings of Leon aren't close to the band they used to be.
For those of us who loved the band they used to be--Stones-swiping, talent-trumping, cocky, catchy, always risque but rarely risky--that's a scary thought. What's more, it's a scary thought to the Kings themselves. That's what Only By the Night is about, and what makes it great.
First, let's back up.
Youth and Young Manhood garnered KOL press not necessarily because it was a home run, but because it showed promise. It was likable and listenable, pairing sparse rock riffs and simple melodies, episodic lyrics with often interesting vocals. It was a good--but not great--record by a young band that absolutely reeked of greater potential.
Aha Shake Heartbreak didn't change their formula, but improved upon it. In terms of production and arrangement it was deliberately reminiscent of Youth; the approach was the same, the sound was the same...the songs were just better. This bumped them up to "noteworthy" status among the elite. They won critical acclaim, received public praise by Bob Dylan, toured with U2, etc.
Wisely, Because of the Times changed the formula. It swapped fuzzy guitars for heavy and huge sounds. Keyboards and lead guitar melodies were utilized for atmospherics, giving some songs a wide sonic landscape (a U2 influence). Giant, reverb-soaked drums gave every tune undeniable weight. While they were generally writing the same type of song as before ("Fans," and "True Love Way" being exceptions), the songs themselves sounded much different. Where Old Kings wrote groupie-odes to fill a club, New Kings wrote gropie-odes to fill an arena. They suddenly sounded huge, even though they weren't yet.
In Only By the Night, KOL apply new songwriting to that larger-than-life production. "Closer," like the rest of the record, is eerie, heavy, and (like its drum part) off-kilter. Though the setting is the same (some vacant small town, late at night), the topic is different. Rather than struggling with a cheerleader local at a backyard party, the singer fights his own loneliness, frustration, and anxiety. The conflict is internal rather than external. The music and the singer enact a growing sense of dread with no obvious source and no forseeable solution.
Where past Kings would've swiped a light-hearted Stones riff, new KOL revisit a grungier (Pearl Jam-influenced) lick for "Crawl." The choice is fitting, since the song focuses on abuse and manipulation inside a relationship. Our singer is clearly victimized, literally beaten by his counterpart, and (in a powerless show of Old Kings-style machismo) wants to see the girl crawl, beg, and plead before he leaves. Which she doesn't. And he doesn't. In an Old Kings song, this refrain would be a testiment to machismo or, worse, misogyny. Here it's coming from an impotent place, and thus more interesting.
"Sex on Fire" is classic KOL. Structurally, it pairs a downbeat riff with an upbeat rhythm section (long a Kings songwriting trademark). Sonically it's the best version of new Kings: large, ominous, thrilling, cathartic. Caleb's vocals have never been bigger and more open. The chorus pays off as much as sex itself does. "Sex on Fire," because of its subject and energy, will be most recognizable to old KOL fans. For that reason, among others, it's a savvy pick as lead-off single, letting old fans get into the pool one step at a time.
Though it will likely never be my favorite Kings of Leon song, "Use Somebody" is arguably their best. It fulfills the promise of Because of the Times, all big-band bluster, anthemic vocals, but this time adorned with an incredibly sharp, cohesive, inspired lyric. "Use Somebody," may just be KOL's quintessential song, because it fully captures the conflict of not only this record, but the band's career:
I've been roamin' around, I was lookin down at all I see/Painted faces fill the places I can't reach/You know I could use somebody/Someone like you...
"Use Somebody" on the first three records would be a song about using somebody, manipulation of power, and selfish behavior. Now, they invite that interpretation, only to offer a new one: the singer needs somebody. This song is in many ways the sequel to "On Call." While the former is about dealing with someone who is lonely and desperate, the latter is about becoming that person. In this song--and this record--the shoe is on the other foot, and the result is perfectly-crafted, powerful, and new.
"Manhattan" and "Revelry" cement KOL's status as a top tier rock band by showing they're capable of the "likable misstep." Both songs are redeemed by a development new to this record: prominent, melodic bass playing. Jared Followill's bass work takes another leap on OBTN, and single-handedly saves "Manhattan" and "Revelry" from being one-dimensional and goofy.
Another new musical development for the Kings is the multi-part melody, best shown in "17." While the Old Kings' winning formula was simple melodies ("The Bucket," for example, is the same three notes repeated over and over), the new Kings finds melodies that are just as memorable and good but aren't as predictable. Old subject matter is revisited here (a seventeen year-old girl is the subject of Aha's "Slow Night, So Long" as well), but this time is different. Then, the girl was problematic, but certainly an object of desire. Here, she "whines, whines" and "weeps over everything." The melody and song structure this time around are more complicated because the relationship itself is.
"Notion" is at once familiar and a revelation, frustrated and joyful, anxious and unrestrained. This song, like "Fans" before it, feels effortlessly open, melodic, earnest, exuberant, much like the best of Tom Petty's work. The vocal approach is something new (a friend compared it to "late Hanson" to my horror and later, when I realized he was right, chagrin), dynamic and wandering. The performances and production are flawless. It's also telling that the record's most joyful-sounding song is about wanting to give up on a relationship and go home.
If the record is largely about someone not knowing who he is anymore, "I Want You" and "Be Somebody" give glimpses of who that person might like to be. The former places the singer in a familiar scene (girls, a party, etc.), with a new refrain ("I want you/exactly like I used to"). It's more nostalgic than urgent; accordingly, it's more reggae than rock. "Be Somebody" sounds like two songs in one, combining a moody, dark verse with a sudden, soaring chorus that expresses desire to break a pattern and become someone better. In one song, he fantasizes about the way he used to be; in the other he half-heartedly yearns about who he might become.
The album's closer, "Cold Desert," sounds like the sequel to Because of the Times' finale, "Arizona." Desert imagery? Check. Feeling lonely from within the confines of a rocky relationship? Check. Haunting, gorgeous guitar melody that drives the song? Check. Ends the record with a "who knows where this will go next" feeling? Check. "I'm too young to feel this old" captures the conflict of the record: yearning for simpler times, but unable to revisit them.
The record's most interesting moment is its penultimate: the album ends by fading "Cold Desert" out...only to fade the song back in for a final refrain "Nobody knows/nobody sees/nobody but me." This choice is startling upon first listen and puzzling even now. At the fade out's quietest point, Caleb sings a few unintelligible words, catalyzing the band to fade back in. This rewarding and (correct me if I'm wrong) new device seemingly enacts the singer's disappearance. His voice literally lost in the mix, he's figuratively lost himself at the end of this record, with no new direction to take (the song finally ends by winding down, one instrument dropping at a time).
As artists, the Kings of Leon have always been aware of where they're headed as a band and how best to do that. Accordingly, they've become successful and semi-famous. As people, however, those prospects can be frightening and overwhelming. Only By the Night is the sound of them taking that mantle while simultaneously being anxious, frustrated, afraid, and overwhelmed by it. It rightly sounds confident, full, and epic while exploring themes of insecurity, desperation, and crippling loneliness.
People who call themselves "die hard" or (wait for it) "true" fans rapidly dismiss a band theydeemed "sold out." One glance at YouTube comments will tell you that many "true" KOL fans are doing that right now. If a band is small, they belong to you and your friends. If a band is big, they belong to everyone, which feels like a betrayal of the "die hard" fan's relationship to the band. Said band stopped making music for them that speaks to them and is always about them. That band is making music for everyone now, and "I'm special, I'm true, and I'm not like everyone."
Most bands, once they reach that level, learn to write from that rockstar persona. They adopt the songwriting voice of "detached celebrity," because 1) vague, derivative, and detached songs actually appeal to more people (although not as deeply) and 2) they know that's the product they're selling. They find their formula, they stick to it, and they never let you see them sweat.
But behold Kings of Leon, now at that level. Behold them now, because they aren't the band they used to be, not remotely, not at all. Behold them, one of the biggest bands on earth. Behold them on pop radio and MTV. Behold them headlining, anthemic, with light shows and press junkets and Asian tours and product placement. Behold them belonging to everyone, not just you.
And if that scares you, good. It scares them, too. They just made a great record about it--and you--if you wanna listen.