Kings of Leon: Only by the Night

Anyone who has followed the exploits of the Followill clan could see it coming. Maybe it was playing stadiums with U2, or the fact that they could pack a field in Glastonbury, England, faster than they could pack a bar in Tennessee. Perhaps it was Eddie Vedder sitting in on a few live sets, or Radiohead's Ed O'Brien stumping for them in the category of world's best band. Maybe it was the Jack Daniels.

Whatever the case, the support of so many musical luminaries and depressants seemed to prophesy only one course for the Southern-fried indie-rock sound of Kings of Leon—up, out, and echoing into the night sky. The band's fourth album, Only by the Night, is a logical leap to widescreen, but it's their willingness to embrace the blackness between the stars that reveals just how far Nathan, Caleb, Jared, and Matthew Followill have been willing to come since Youth and Young Manhood.

The album centers on the conflicted mind of Caleb Followill, whose dark, guilt-ridden couplets have always given the band's raw and tumbling sound a kind of pathos. His sin-imbibing young bohemian, locked in eternal combat with his soul, is the thread that ties Night to the rest of the Kings' catalog, but on songs like "Use Somebody" and "Manhattan," he releases his normally cloistered Southern sneer. His soulful vocals are, for the first time, powerful, open, and convincing. Even the very literal and laughably titled "Sex on Fire" comes across as earnest and heartfelt, although it's the most Kings-by-the-numbers track on the album.

The music on this record is inky and euphoric. Opener "Closer" sets the tone in sinister and stunning fashion, with Caleb meditating on an apocalyptic love affair while his siblings play atmospherics around him. This is followed by album highlight "Crawl," featuring a fuzzed-out bass groove that sounds like a tonally modulating jet engine (seriously, turn your subwoofer up for this one). Heavy, loud—more an earthquake than a song—it's a jaw-dropping moment for the band, and the surest sign of their stadium-sized intentions.

Very little on Night lands short of epic, but the few cracks where the band shifts down-tempo find worthy moments of musicianship. Elder brother Nathan's beats are steady and propulsive, if a bit dull, while youngest brother Jared's bass lines flex nimbly around songs like "Use Somebody" and "Revelry." The crisp, locked-in sound for which the band has become known comes from a simple formula: the three brothers playing in a tight pocket while cousin Matthew solos and distorts on lead guitar. Listen to "I Want You" for a primer on the Followill method for piecing together a song.

The album closes with a dark star and a diminuendo. "Be Somebody" is a muscular accomplishment of pure rock musicianship. "Now I'm no longer an ordinary man," Caleb sings in a moment of belligerent epiphany, while slow-burning finale "Cold Desert" is a sad and starry-eyed comedown. "Jesus don't love me," laments the middle son of a former Pentecostal preacher, "no one ever carried my load." And suddenly, fall is upon us, and another gear shifts in the cogs of Kings.

 
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