If you agree with Pitchforkmedia (and it’s okay if you do, just don’t make a habit of it), you’re just upset as can be that the Kings of Leon didn’t stick to their hayseed roots (see their first two albums, Youth & Young Manhood and the stellar Aha Shake Heartbreak) on their third album, Because of the Times. You probably feel like they were trying to be a hick U2 as opposed to the hick Strokes you wanted them to be. If that’s the case, know this up front: you’re not gonna like Only By the Night.
On their fourth album, the Kings of Leon continue down the arena-rock path they jumped on for Because of the Times, but this time around, there’s a lot more of the slow-burning, bass-driven, ballady stuff. Caleb Followill has a unique sort of yowl that makes his songs more endearing, especially given his lack of lyrical depth (sorry, but “This sex is on fire!” is funny, but not necessarily… um… poetry). You can tell that Followill is trying a little tenderness on Only By the Night, and it’s mostly enjoyable as long as you know what you’re in for.
So here’s what you’re in for, and why I can heartily endorse Only By the Night as a slightly better than mediocre pop album: the album is the soundtrack for an ’80s movie, probably directed by John Hughes, that doesn’t actually exist. If you don’t believe me, listen to “Use Somebody,” and “Be Somebody,” and tell me that you can’t picture Corey Feldman/Haim running down a street in the rain to one of those songs. Or maybe imagine Molly Ringwald sobbing to “Manhattan” while waiting for … some other fucking Brat Packer to throw a rock at her window and whisk her off to the prom. Unfortunately, though, this isn’t the ’80s, it’s the Aughts, and we don’t have John Hughes-style cheesy teen-flicks. We have mumblecore. And for sure, Only By the Night could be perverted into a mumblecore movie soundtrack, but not with much success because Followill is still able to sneak in the sort of visceral sex pun that would cause the mumblecore kids to blush all over under their sweaters. For instance, on “I Want You,” where he talks about a “A choke/ a gag/ she spit up and then came back for more.” (Yes, this is a reference to a blowjob and is probably what the Pitchfork reviewer thought was “open misogyny”, a phrase that’s been showing up a lot on p-fork lately. Which begs the question – does Pitchforkmedia think that all oral sex is misogynist?)
Look: I’m not gonna sit here and try to convince you that Calib Followill is some sort of pop genius (he isn’t – in fact, part of the charm of him and the other Kings of Leon is that they’re more like rock ‘n’ roll savants). And I’m certainly not gonna throw Only By the Night to the top of my Best of 2008 list. But I’m also not gonna ignore the thrill of shouting along, “This sex is on fire!” I’m not gonna deny the melodic basslines of “Notion” or “Cold Desert.” I’m not gonna pretend, unlike certain pitchfork folks, that I’m somehow above any and all cheesy indulgences. Yes, emphatically yes, lines like “I’m too young to feel this old” are trite as fuck (even following the line “Jesus don’t love me”) but the melody of “Cold Desert” is still infectious. What do you want? I listen to important, serious music too (like The Clash. Very important, very serious), but think about it: it would be far worse if Kings of Leon were trying to save the world – the Followill brothers are just not capable of that kind of writing. You’d end up with superficial, Incubus-level political songs and the fact is, in today’s political climate, we have enough of that shit (see “Sweet Neo-Con” by The Rolling Stones for examples of this – yes, I can agree with you politically and still wish you never write another song as long as you live). It’s far better to me to hear the Kings of Leon doing their cheesy thing at levels slightly above mediocre (occasionally stumbling into the realm of Awesome, as on “Notion” and “Crawl”) and enjoy them for what they are.
Admittedly, if it wasn’t Caleb Followill singing these songs, I probably wouldn’t care at all about them. Dude’s got a unique voice, not necessarily a good one, but the kind of howling dog thing I really like. This kind of voice might be a problem for you if you openly orgasm over Sufjan Stevens and his undeniably pretty wisp of a tenor. But I’ll take Tom Waits and Caleb Followill over Sufjan any day of the week.
Only By the Night is a cheesefest for sure, not to be taken seriously at all, but it is a lot of fun to listen to while playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Or watching The Breakfast Club with the sound turned off. My reasons for forgiving the bad things about Kings of Leon are every bit as arbitrary as Pitchfork’s reasons for not forgiving them (though only one of us would cop to that); you’ll have to check it out for yourself and decide. For my money, I want to film someone who looks like Corey FeldHaim running in the rain to “Be Somebody.” Take from that what you will.