The Pleasures and Punishments of Patience: Kings of Leon’s “Only by the Night”

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kolAccording to Rolling Stone Magazine's April cover, Kings of Leon are "America's hottest band" right now. After seeing them live this past Saturday at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, I'd have to agree. Oh, and who does Rolling Stone think they are putting a Rock 'n Roll band, let alone a good band, on their cover? Are people not into The Hills, Britney, or Lindsay Lohan any more? Or worse, do all those people who like that crap like Kings of Leon? Is this good or bad? Shit, I've been known to watch The Hills myself. Am I pop culture puppet whose likes and dislikes are masterfully controlled by the mass media or am I a hip and "with it" guy who uses all the resources that are available to him to decide for himself what is actually worthy art and entertainment? You can't hate on things just because they're popular or you liked them before they got huge. So what if you have to endure 20,000 drunk high school kids and frat boys when you go to see one of your favorite bands? Don't you want them to make money so they can keep making music? Wait a second, this isn't what I wanted to talk about at all. Or is it?

What I wanted to discuss was how I initially was disappointed by KoL's "Only By the Night" to six months later be listening to it on a daily basis. Now that I've finally seen them live I can masterfully tie in my love of the album to their performance at The Spectrum on April 25th, 2009. Then finally I can wrap all this up in a pretty little bow by putting the album and the show into a larger context of what it means to let yourself go and allow yourself to love that which makes you feel good regardless of what Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or your friends who saw KoL a year ago say "they're played out," think. Yet, keeping your mind and heart open can lead to a lot of pain down the road. The job you should have quit years ago, the school you should have transferred out of, the relationship that went on far too long, etc. When do we know when it is time to open our hearts and when do we know it is time to give up on something or someone?  Life paradoxically keeps trying to teach me to "know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em" and I have no idea what is the answer.

First, let's review the album. I'd been fiddling around writing a review for "Only By the Night" for about three months and I'm well aware that this album came out back in August '08, but if you stick with me that's kind of the whole point. The song "Sex on Fire" is what turned me off at first. Upon listening I thought they're a long way from "Youth and Young Manhood" and "Aha Shake Heartbreak". Too anthemic. It sounds like Coldplay or U2 or even worse Bruce Hornsby or The Eagles. It was all too polished and a little too "let's try and blow the retractable roof off of Wembley Stadium and sell some records". A.K.A too mainstream. Where's the harsh guitar? Where's lead singer's Caleb Followill's gritty, whiny unique voice. It sounds cleaner now for some reason. Few lead singers have the courage to let a voice like his be fully expressed. He would have been laughed off of American Idol, but it is singers like him that attain greatness; Bob Dylan, Neil Young and more recently Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnstons. So with all of this going against KoL in terms of me taking a liking to "Only by the Night", how in the Lord's name did I come to fucking love this album and am still listening to bits of it nearly every day?

There are two colliding events here. One is my new found commitment to basically not be a dismissive, judgmental asshole. The other event is that someone told me that they liked "Only by the Night" a lot more than KoL's previous albums. My gut reaction was to say, "are you an idiot?" Yet my new not-so-natural reaction was, "you know what? I'm going to give it another listen and get back to you about that." Like I said before, I love the album. It makes me want to dance hard and wild, run a sprint as long as I can, cry deeply, feel intense physical pain and pleasure, fall in love, and then lose my sense of self whilst making out with that girl I just fell in love with. Here's the deal: Bands have to evolve. People evolve. Just as I can no longer maintain my youthful scowl, no longer could Kings of Leon have honestly maintained their youthful angst and grit forever. This isn't to say they don't rock the eff out.

"Manhattan" is the centerpiece of the album for me. The masterpiece, the coup de grace. It is simultaneously anthem, Southern Rock, dance, measured, wild, and boastful. It is everything that they used to be and everything they've become. Maybe it's because I live in Manhattan. Maybe it's because I've recently rediscovered how much I love dancing and especially dancing by myself. Maybe if I heard this song at another time in my life it would be meaningless, but because I opened my mind and heart to it that it has affected at a specific point in my life and it gives me temporary pleasure. Or maybe it's a fucking bad-ass, perfection of a song. I'll never know, but I do know that I'm tapping my toe just thinking about it.

So, according to me and my expert opinion, if "Manhattan" is the centerpiece and the masterpiece of the album let's build out from that like a blossoming flower. I want to do this because this is how I learned to love the album. Not from start to finish, but from the middle outward like an atom bomb of fondness. The mushroom cloud of my heart eventually spreading over the entire album.

"Sex on Fire", "Use Somebody", "Manhattan" & "Revelry" are the heart of the album. "Sex on Fire" is of course the most popular song and got the biggest and predictably loudest sing-a-long response at the concert. This is all for a good reason. The song is simply pure rock. It's fun, it's fast, it's catchy, it's sexy, and you can dance your ass off to it. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn't like it because it felt too mainstream, but now that I see how it works with all the other songs in the album, it feels a lot less intentionally popular. A lot less, "we need to write a radio friendly single here". It's a just a damn good song that most people enjoy and that is no fault of Kings of Leon. "Use Somebody", probably got the second biggest reaction from the crowd and was the last song in the set when I saw them live. A masterful bit of song line-up scheduling from the band. This song is one of those pieces of art that is so deeply personal that it is universal. From what I gather it's about Caleb Followill, the lead singer, trying to compose a song to make a girl fall in love with him. While she's "off in the night to live it up" he's at home waging wars to "shake the poet and the beat" in the hopes that it'll "make her notice" "someone like me." Who hasn't been there? Who hasn't tried to find the best in themselves in order to gain someone else's affection? Love is the greatest motivator and this speaks to every drunken frat boy or 16 year old girl that was in that audience that night whether they knew it or not. The catchy and anthemic nature of the song belies its seriousness. This is the brilliance of Kings of Leon and is why I love them now more than ever. Then, the final song in the heart of the album is "Revelry". Yet another personal and universal song this time about regret. Like Joni Mitchell says, "you don't know what you've got till it's gone." This earnest ballad is about having a wandering eye whilst in the midst of a relationship only to regret it once you've driven your girl away. Again, something anyone who's ever been in a relationship has felt.

Let's bloom out even further. I'm gonna be real with y'all, there's a few tracks that I don't like on this album and let me get them out of the way. "17" is probably my least favorite. Not only do I not like the arrangement, but the story about the perils of getting involved with a 17-year-old girl with a sexy accent feels cheap and thin. "Frontier City" is the last song on the album and probably should have been left off. I have no idea what's trying to be said in this song. Is it about living life to the fullest with the line, "find yourself a new frontier cuz life is going, going gone"? Or is it about getting in a fight or is it about just driving through some scary town in New Mexico or Utah and wanting to get the hell out of there?  I am also not that fond of "Crawl", the second song on the album. I simply can't get into, but it is about losing faith and pride in God and your country. I give them a B+ for effort though because these things are not easy to confront, so KoL battle through it by rocking the fuck out with crunchy, over-modulated guitars and Caleb Followill's heartfelt yelping.

Phew, glad we got those duds (Spellman duds at the very least) out of the way. The album opens perfectly with the slow building song "Closer". There's this infectious spaceship sounding guitar that you can't get out of your head. Lyrically, from what I can gather, it's an angry break-up song which fits in perfectly with their previous albums' angsty young man songs. What was I thinking before? Thematically, Kings of Leon hasn't changed at all. Well, they're just better musicians and songwriters and can be less direct with their horny male themes. Right off the bat they've shown me how they've changed for the better and are yet still the same band that I was smitten with back in '04. "Notion" sort of feels like an intentionally arena song, but by now, I no longer care. I think it also might be the only track with a piano which makes it special. Let's move on to "I Want You". A quintessential grab your girl and sway diddy. Half the cellphone illuminated crowd at the concert was making out to this. But if you listen closely, it's kind of nasty. "She spit up and came back for more." How can you not love this song? It can make you want to grab your girl and hold her tight all the while the lyrics talk about some dude showing a sex tape of him and his girlfriend to all his buddies. Here is the youthfulness that I was craving, but now it's subdued and hidden in a ballad which makes it even better. Finally, "Cold Dessert", the second to last song on the album is languid and passion is tangible. It's greatest achievement is that listening to this song actually does feel like being in a cold and lonely dessert night. It's sparse, controlled, and dark. This song also has my favorite line of the whole album when Caleb croons, "I'm too young to feel this old." It speaks specifically to me and how I've been feeling a lot lately. A couple months back I became determined to not let myself feel old at 28 because one day, hopefully, I will be old and I'll feel like an asshole for thinking 28 was old. So, no, I'm not old. That attitude is part of one of the last vestiges of my youthful temperament that I'm trying to shed. Finally this song has this nifty little fake fade-out. Oh, is this over, that was nice, but wait a second, here it comes back again with a desperate plea. If only they had ended the album with this song.

Then the concert. This past Saturday once again presented me with an opportunity to revert to my old, impatient judgmental self. We were hungover, tired and naturally cooler and older than 90% of the people at the concert. And sure, my concert companion and I made many hilarious observations about the other concert-goers but whenever I felt myself getting mean-spirited or was bumped inadvertently by some meathead, I took a deep breath and tried to not let it get to me. And it worked. I heard one dude (a rocker/hipster looking fellow) in the bathroom describe the show at The Spectrum as the biggest frat party he'd ever been to. This is the price you pay for liking a band that makes it big. Yet, worse than the crowd, were our seats. Have you ever heard of "obscured view" seats? Well, at the Spectrum they have "ZERO view" seats. That's right. Our seats were actually behind a set of stairs that had ZERO visibility of the floor. This is not a joke and I wish I had brought my camera to prove this. Alas, we decided to take somebody else's seats and luckily whoever had them, didn't want them. Despite all these impediments, drunken douchebags walking backwards in the concourse, $8.50 cups of Bud Light, and seats with no visibility we had an amazing time. All the jerks and the teeny boppers were actually into the show and dancing and having a good time and that made me feel good. Also, KoL fucking rocked. Their performance, while slightly pedestrian was tight and flowed nicely. The set list was "Only by the Night" heavy, but they also played a couple classics from "Aha Shake Heartbreak" and "Because of the Times" which greatly pleased us longtime fans. They also seemed genuinely appreciative of the crowd. They played without pretense or much fanfare and simply let the music and the lyrics do the talking.

In the end, my patience with the album itself and the impediments of the show have only led to greater happiness in my life. The turnaround in my opinion of the album is not only a testament to the quality of Kings of Leon but a lesson in understanding that as long as we remain open our capacity for elation will be ever expanding.  At the start of this piece I wrote: "life paradoxically keeps trying to teach me to 'know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em'' and I have no idea what is the answer. I now know the answer. I may get burned and hurt by keeping an open mind or giving someone the benefit of the doubt or giving a friendship or a relationship time to blossom, but this experience and many others this '09 has taught me that the rewards for patience and persistence are far greater than the quick comforts of playin' it safe.

7 Comments

  • 1

    they're played out.

    j/k tim.

  • 2

    i less than three this review.

  • 3

    Great review, dude, but I gotta say it, you people are no fun anymore.
    Come back! Come back and listen to The Bucket and dread adulthood with me!

  • 4

    Great review, dude, but I gotta say it, you people are no fun anymore.
    Come back! Come back and listen to The Bucket and dread relationships, the Eagles and
    being nice to stupids with me!

  • 5

    The Eagles (the band and the american football team) will always have a place in my heart.

  • 6

    Is there an echo in here?
    It's not easy making contact from this dimension. It would be better if I could just call you guys collect.

  • 7

    I have never thought about this subject before in my entire life. Congratulations, New Tim, on expanding my mind.

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