They’ve never exactly been over-burdened by insight. “We’ve figured out the formula,” asserted Nathan Followill when his band spoke to NME a few weeks back. “The harder you work, the more successful you get.” Only in the realm of the Kings could this count as scientific discovery; you mean packing out the Milton Keynes Thunderdome might demand more than a suitable supply of plectrums? Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Followill…
If they claim they weren’t trying before, it’s only because their prodigious talent always meant everything came easy. ‘Not trying’ yielded two rave-reviewed records full of what we used to dub ‘Southern-fried Strokes’. And trying? That spat out the monolithic ‘Because Of The Times’: its wagon-paced, chorus-free seven-minute opener ‘Knocked Up’ an instant signifier they knew exactly what they were doing. And if its second half couldn’t quite match the opening force of ‘Charmer’, ‘McFearless’ and their ilk, it didn’t stop them from quietly becoming a band apart. Without ever achieving a Top 10 single, they conquered Glastonbury on grassroots fan-power more than fashionability. Now, with the release of their fourth album, they’re widely expected to use all that talent to vault to genuine greatness.
So many assumptions. It’s natural to assume it’s going to sound stadium-filling. And it does. It’s natural to assume their sonic trajectory is now locked into a path that’s closer to Editors than Creedence. That’s true too. It’s also naturally been assumed, partly on the strength of the pre-release cuts, that this is to be their magnum opus, their ‘Transformer’/‘Revolver’/‘The Bends’ bulwark against time. Wrong. Sad as it is to relate, the Kings have once again made only half of the album of the year. Like their last, ‘Only By The Night’ is front-loaded with world-beaters but then gradually ebbs back to more interchangeable moments. More than ever its strengths, when it succeeds, later become its weaknesses. It tries a mite too hard.
The key to its lush, pop-framed sonics could be in Caleb’s talk of how he wrote some of the record’s best cuts while under the influence of pain medication, prescribed after a scuffle with Nathan. This is a record that comes ringed in a sedative halo. At its best, it’s mirrored in the woozy, underwater-love sensibility that informs the magisterial likes of ‘Closer’, ‘Manhattan’ and ‘17’. But the flipside, a sense-numbed dissociation from empty anthemics, is what makes ‘Only By The Night’ sometimes seem underwrought and occasionally ploddy.
Not that the opening trilogy offers any inkling: as a declaration of intent, ‘Closer’ may be the best thing they’ve ever done and possibly the grandest first-shot since Interpol’s ‘Untitled’. Within seconds, a familiar strand of two-note ‘Because Of The Times’ guitar is joined by a sonic glitch that’d probably sound more at home in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop than a Nashville studio, soon swaddled in a second guitar so effects-laden it’s almost shoegaze. There’s that familiar compressed snare-drum gut-punch, and then… Caleb gasping about Rapture, all while the musical tide rises around him, through a sublime, foreboding-filled Southern Gothic overture.
On to this they build a profound opening trilogy: the tank-like “crucified USA” churn of ‘Crawl’, the extraordinary telescopic chorus of ‘Sex On Fire’. Then ‘Use Somebody’ takes a turn for the Kelly Clarkson. On its own, its cresting lonely-road shape makes it easily the best ’80s power ballad of 2008. But it foreshadows the way the Kings, who we’d always assumed knew exactly where the line was, may be in danger of mistaking bluster for brilliance. The more countrified ‘Manhattan’ and louche teenie-loving ‘17’ succeed, but the soft-rocking ‘Revelry’ and the almost Verve-like oceanic rumble of ‘Notion’ pass unremarkably. Criminally, ‘I Want You’ is a mid-tempo plodder three tracks from the end – right where the stratospheric burn-up moment should be. ‘Be Somebody’ scuds through its verses only to fall into bluster in the chorus. As an outro, ‘Cold Desert’ would like to be their ‘The End’ or ‘I Am The Resurrection’, the big, caterwauling extended fuck-off cherry on their cake, but ends up anaemic. There’s a false coda and some loose guitar wigging but no real sense of urgency. It’s the sound of the Kings crowning themselves and forgetting to invite everyone else to their party.
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Of course ‘Only By The Night’ will still make them massive. As they gaze upon megaplex after enormodome this autumn, though, they’ll have to content themselves with the knowledge they’re merely one of the best bands of our times. True immortality – that’s been postponed.