Like many big-sounding albums, Only by the Night is a polarizing piece of work, one that targets new fans at the expense of those who wish Kings of Leon had never shaved their beards or discovered post-'70s rock. To rope in the skeptics, the strongest tracks are pushed toward the album's first half. "Crawl" flexes the band's rock & roll muscle, melding Led Zeppelin-styled crunch with the experimental guitar buzz of U2's Achtung Baby, while "Sex on Fire" makes up for its goofy title with a meteoric chorus tailored to Caleb's voice. (He sounds fantastic throughout the record, even if his vocals continue to be garbled by some untraceable accent, as if he's auditioning for the Jodie Foster role in a Broadway adaptation of Nell.) Rounding out the hit-filled segment are "Use Somebody" and "Manhattan," where Matthew Followill cloaks his guitar riffs in reverb and bassist Jared Followill takes the spotlight sporadically, popping up for quick melodic fills before ducking back into the mix. While past Kings of Leon albums concerned themselves with alcohol, women, and other hedonistic themes, those two songs are nothing but pop/rock grandeur, and Caleb howls their hopeful lyrics like Bono's American-born cousin. Only by the Night focuses on textures and experimentation during the album's latter half, but most songs still deliver some sort of Technicolor melody, from "Notion" (one of the only tracks featuring piano) to the unexpected chorus of "Be Somebody." Taken as a whole, Only by the Night targets the audience that approved Kings of Leon's sonic shift in 2007, leaving older fans free to damn these tracks for their consciously grand approach. Yes, the album is often cheesy. Yes, some of the more popular songs lost their luster after endless months of radioplay. But Only by the Night remains a potent Kings of Leon record, and the guys have never defined their ambition so clearly.
Andrew Leahey, Rovi