When Kings of Leon released their third album Because Of The Times in April 2007, Entertainment Weekly called it their “crowning achievement,” while Rolling Stone wondered: “How good can the Kings of Leon get? They’ve already gone further than anybody could have guessed.”
Coming as it did on the heels of 2003’s rowdy Youth and Young Manhood and 2005’s brawny Aha Shake Heartbreak, the expansive Because of The Times was indeed a pivotal and game-changing album. It led the Followills — Tennessee-bred Caleb, Nathan, and Jared, and their cousin Matthew — to astonishing success around the world. In the U.S., the band has sold out New York City’s fabled Radio City Music Hall and The Greek Theatre in Hollywood. In the U.K., Kings of Leon headlined this summer’s legendary Glastonbury Festival, as well as the Oxygen Festival in Ireland, and sold out their upcoming December show at London’s 20,000-seat 02 Arena (where Led Zeppelin held its reunion concert) in less than an hour.
But if critics thought that Because of The Times was the work of a band “at the peak of its powers” (as the Los Angeles Times put it), they may want to reconsider that assessment after hearing Kings of Leon’s new album Only By The Night, due from RCA Records on September 23rd. Only By The Night picks up where Because of The Times left off, continuing Kings of Leon’s shape-shifting evolution and cementing their status as a world-class rock band.
“After three records and touring for five years straight, we knew what we were capable of,” says the band’s drummer Nathan, “we just had to put our money where our mouths were. We had to take it to the next level. You always want your next record to be better than your last.” Adds frontman and lyricist Caleb: “There’s never a time that we’ll make a record and won’t attempt to do something better than what came before.”
With its stunning melodies, ringing guitars, and razor-sharp grooves, Only By The Night delivers on the promise Kings of Leon have shown throughout their career. From the desolate atmospherics of the opening track “Closer” (which Caleb says is about a lovesick vampire) to the emotional intensity of the closing ballad “Cold Desert” (“about a man at the end of his rope who picks himself back up”), Only By The Night is all heart from start to finish.
Album highlights include the insistently chugging first single “Sex on Fire” (“there’s always been an element of sex in our music, so I thought I’d just wrap it all up in one song and be done with the sex for the rest of the record,” Caleb jokes), the throbbing, propulsive “Crawl” (about relationships of all kinds and taking them for granted), and the sonically sweeping “Use Somebody,” which Caleb wrote while feeling lonely on the road. “It’s about being far from home.” Then there’s the soaring uplift of “Manhattan,” which is partly about dancing and enjoying life and partly about the struggles of Native Americans. “’Manhattan’ is actually a Native American word that means ‘island of many hills,’” says Caleb, who adds that his family has Native American blood. Finally there’s the driving, forceful “Notion,” which finds the singer pushing back against anyone who says anything against anyone in his band.
Caleb’s instinct for insularity is not surprising given that the band is made up of family members. The familial vibe extended to the recording process when Kings of Leon returned to Nashville’s Blackbird Studio in April 2008 with their long-time producer Angelo Petraglia and Nashville-based producer/engineer Jacquire King, who also mixed Aha Shake Heartbreak. “Angelo keeps it fun and youthful,” Nathan says. “He and Jacquire were cool enough to tell us when we really needed to stop playing Wall Ball and get serious, rather than being stern and scaring the shit out of us. It kind of took the pressure off.”
Petraglia and King also encouraged the experimental process the Followills first engaged in when making Because Of The Times, giving the band the freedom to explore all of their ideas. “We had the opportunity to really get in there and be more hands-on as far as the production goes,” Caleb says. “We wanted to prove ourselves a bit more. We got to kick our heels up, have drinks, and relax while recording.” Adds Nathan: “You can tell from the music that we’re definitely comfortable.”
“To me it sounds like the Kings of Leon are back not only as a band, but as friends,” Caleb says. “Every night after recording we’d go to a bar together, hang out and talk about what we were going to do the next day, rather than all of us going to our separate homes. It was really a big family vibe. That’s where the title comes from. It’s also a reference to a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and it has five syllables, like all of our album titles.”
Caleb had written most of the lyrics and melodies for Only By The Night during some downtime at home recovering from shoulder surgery. “I think the pain pills inspired him a little more than he realized,” Nathan says with a laugh. “He would play us a song and we’d say, ‘When did you write that?’ and he’d say, ‘I don’t really remember writing it. I just woke up with an empty bottle of wine and my songbook open and these words written down.’” Says Caleb: “Those pills can make you feel so nice. I think a lot of the pretty melodies came from that and from me just opening more.”
Another influence could be their experiences playing arenas, not only in support of Because Of The Times, but while opening for U2 in 2005 and Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam in 2006 and 2008. “We definitely wanted the songs to sound good in a 15,000-seat venue, but we also wanted them to have the kind of intimacy that would get the point across at a club show for 300 kids,” Nathan says.
Overall, the Followills knew it was time to be honest about their ambitions and prove what they could really do. Caleb, for one, unleashes some of the most righteous, anguished singing he’s ever recorded. “I knew it was a risk for me to go in there and really open up and belt the way that I know that I can; the way that I used to when I was younger,” he says. “I just hid my singing for so long because I was nervous that people would listen to my lyrics, assume I wasn’t intelligent because I’m from Tennessee, and pick me apart, so that’s why I sang the way I did. But going into this, I knew these melodies that we were playing were too beautiful for me to fuck it up. I had to go for it.”
“Basically we got the point where we realized that we can be known as a band that hit it hard for three records and disappeared, or be a band that was smart enough to realize that not very many bands get to make four records, so let’s make the most of this,” Nathan says. “Because honestly, we were horrible housepainters and that’s what we’d be doing if we weren’t doing this!”