Replacing the legitimate aspirations toward greatness they displayed on 2007’s Because of the Times with the distinct impression that they’ve now bought into every word of their U.K. press hype, Kings of Leon aim for stadium-rock grandeur on Only By the Night, badly missing the mark when it comes to what they actually do well. While their previous effort found the Kings (four Followill boys of varying relations) adapting their trademark brand of greasy Southern rock into more progressive, modern styles, Night aims strictly for AOR territory and hits that mark more often than not. The occasional bit of gritty three-chord bar stomp makes its presence known in the arrangements of “Crawl” and “Sex On Fire” (far less successful as a standalone single than earlier efforts “Happy Alone” or “Four Kicks”), but there’s little of the band’s masterful use of the Southern vernacular or their unabashed hedonism that give their work its character.
Instead, opening vampire story “Closer” is as head-slappingly literal as True Blood, while the Followills’ desire to make some kind of political statement on “Crawl” results in a screed so poorly focused and ineptly executed that it can be read as either a pro-Obama rallying anthem or a reactionary hand-wringing about how a practicing Muslim is preparing to lead the United States on a rapid descent into hell. Even at their most ambitious, Kings of Leon have never been a band with something articulate to say. Hell, the opening lines of “Revelry” (“What a night for a dance/You know I’m a dancing machine/With fire in my bones/And the sweet taste of kerosene”) prove that they’re not even particularly good at writing lyrics about getting laid.
That leaves Night to live or die on the strength of its arrangements, and, again, the record highlights that Kings of Leon are ill-fitted to be the next U2. For every effective decision—the distorted, cacophonous outro of “Cold Desert” or the deceptively complex rhythmic structure of “Closer”—there’s the bland MOR stylings of a “Use Somebody” or “I Want You.” As the weaker cuts on Times illustrated, Kings of Leon is a band too caked in mud, too intimately familiar with the dirty earth to soar in the manner of U2 or early Radiohead. Too much of Night, however, finds the band stubbornly trying to do exactly that. While their ambition for evolving remains admirable, their apparent failure to understand their own strengths is troubling and undermines the promise they showed on their previous efforts.