Caleb Followill’s voice emanates pure Allman-longing, even when he sings—literally, I think—about “sex on fire.” Over the course of three albums, the Kings of Leon have worn their undigested influences joyfully on their rangy, sleeveless arms; they attack each song with a furiously guileless enthusiasm. Sure, this is partly born of a supremely unambitious approach, but the result is a rare, uncomplicated rock pleasure. 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak has endured several years into the blog era—during which time a band’s longevity ought to be measured in dog years—while “The Bucket” even recently earned an of-the-moment CSS remix. And blatant Pixies aping of “Charmer,” off last year’s underrated Because of the Times, couldn’t be more beguilingly in love with Frank Black if a team of alienated ’90s teens sang/screamed it.
Sadly, KOL’s fourth record, Only by the Night, is mostly an arena-rock aberration. The band isn’t playing CB313 Gallery—they need to write spacious, grandiose songs designed for British festivals, or the Killers will usurp them. But stadium-scale drama doesn’t suit their strengths. “Crawl” is a great single, Caleb drawling over the sort of slow, fuzzy Brit-bombast that inspires Gallagher-like triumphalist dancing onstage, with cumbersome sidestepping and victorious-boxer arm-waving. But “Closer,” “Use Somebody,” and “Be Somebody” could only work at giant festivals: Through headphones or computer speakers, Caleb’s echoey vocals just don’t ring credible. Their Black-Crowes-go-new-wave choruses are exciting enough, but they feel unearned after tiresome, oversung verses.
The album’s best moments (excluding “Crawl”) arrive in the looser, less bombastic second half. “Revelry” sounds like the Allmans (wistful, twangy guitar) as produced by Dave Sitek (stuttery, synthetic beat)—the fusion is novel, slightly hilarious, and excellent. “Notion” and “17” are the kind of undercooked, less chorus-oriented tunes that underscore the band’s career-long strengths: unaffected energy and joyful playing. KOL’s efforts to expand their sound are admirable, and Night may very well succeed commercially, but sticking to a looser, smaller scale will give the band a better chance at enduring. That, or they should just go ahead and actually work with Dave Sitek next time, finally unleashing their ’70s stoner epic: the psych-rock masterpiece the Allmans never made.