Queens Of The Stone Age
, June 5th, 2013 10:47
The six years since the release of Queens Of The Stone Age's last album, Era Vulgaris, an effort best described as a 'one for the hardcore fans if not the casual observer', has seen enough movement and drama to wonder if Josh Homme was ever going to return to the band that propelled him into the major league. Side projects in the shape of supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, production duties with Eagles Of Death Metal and Arctic Monkeys, detours into contributing material to film soundtracks as well as line-up changes and near-death experiences have all conspired to keep one of the 21st century's most original and intriguing rock bands out of the public eye and off turntables with new material for more time than is healthy for any artist.
Whether Homme cares to admit it or not, these are all events that have left their indelible mark on his muse and so it is that the hedonistic swagger that characterised so much of Queens Of The Stone Age's output is replaced by a sense of doubt and introspection that runs through …Like Clockwork. As early as the Blur-esque 'I Sat By The Ocean' Homme laments, "I sat by the ocean and drank a potion to erase you" before concluding, "We're passing ships in the night… We're crashing ships in the night".
Elsewhere, on the piano driven ballad 'The Vampye Of Time And Memory' Homme sounds almost lost as he croons, "I want God to take me home because I'm alone in a crowd" and it's a side to the Ginger Elvis that has previously been barely hinted at. But there's also redemption here that prevents the album descending into a mire of self-indulgent navel gazing as, during the howling coda of 'I Appear Missing', one of the album's standout tracks, that Homme acknowledges that no one is an island when he sings, "I never loved anything until I loved you".
Musically, …Like Clockwork is Queens Of The Stone Age's most complex release and one that by turns beguiles, frustrates, enthrals and confuses. The pile-driving rhythms and dense layers of guitars are here replaced by more space that allow guitars to weave in and out of each other while analogue synths gurgle and squelch beneath the surface to create a sense of creepiness and dread akin to being left in the desert with just a few mouthfuls of water and circling buzzards for company. That his experiences with Them Crooked Vultures has had an effect on the music is abundantly clear throughout but this isn't a retread of that album; this is consolidation of the finest kind.
Not all of it works. Opener 'Keep Your Eyes Peeled' feels more like an exercise in production than it does sharp songwriting. Ushered in by the crash of breaking glass, guitars emulate the sound of a creaking battleship hull while the bass rumbles ominously to a harmonic climax that remains rooted to the spot. As an opening gambit, it's a calculated risk that threatens to colour the rest of the album but the grind that pushes it along gives way to more enjoyable fare.
Though much has been made of the album's guest appearances – Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Trent Reznor, Mark Lanegan (but of course), former Queens headcase Nick Oliveri, Alex Turner, Dave Grohl and Elton John are all present and correct – there's nothing here that pricks up the ears to make each of their contributions stand out. Perhaps that was plan as Josh Homme re-asserts his leadership over the band but the trumpeting of these collaborators feels disingenuous at best.
Nonetheless, there are moments contained in these grooves that confirm a newly found maturity and dexterity in presentation. Remarkably, 'If I Had A Tail' wouldn't sound out of place on David Bowie's latest offering and, like Bowie in the mid 70s, Homme finds his gaze wandering across the Atlantic to Europe as he doffs his cap to Cluster's 'In Ewigkeit' on 'Kalopsia' before it explodes into a narcotic waltz. The mechanised idiot funk of 'Smooth Sailing' is aimed at the hips and feet that manages to rock as well as roll. Not so much a move away from low-slung sleaze to the dancefloor, the track fuses the best elements of both that finds Queens Of The Stone Age carving out a new and satisfying niche for themselves and, by extension, us.
Homme is in remarkably fine voice throughout as he delivers his finest vocal performances to date. By turns tender, yearning and seeking to make some kind of sense of life, his voice frequently rises to beautifully controlled falsettos across the album's ballads while tracks such as the snaking 'My God Is The God Is The Sun' find him on more familiar balls-out territory. But what differs these performances from those of days gone by is believability, that here is an artist snapped into a reality that is exciting, frightening and uncertain. Homme has seen both dark and light and what we have is personal reportage soaked in poignancy, and none more so than on the title track when, with a sighing weariness he sings, "Everyone it seems has somewhere to go/And the faster the world spins the shorter the lights will glow..."
With just 10 tracks …Like Clockwork benefits from being a concise effort and one that jettisons the excesses of previous releases. It's also best heard in a single sitting rather than cherry picking tracks for your playlist and for this Queens Of The Stone Age should be applauded. But this is isn't album to fall in love with at first sight or listen; indeed, this requires a form of courtship between listener and album as the former, over time, opens up its many dense layers to first entice and then slowly seduce the latter into a lasting and meaningful relationship.
…Like Clockwork's excursions into new and uncharted waters elicit a well-deserved admiration as Queens Of The Stone Age stare down the realities of mortality and borrowed time. Undoubtedly this is the work of mature people but crucially they never sound old or resigned; this is an acceptance of a situation that hurtles to an inexorable climax and one that draws a clear line in the sand. Where they go from here is anybody's guess but the hope remains that, by settling into a new groove, re-grouping quickly and avoiding extra-curricular activities, Queens Of The Stone Age will continue to expand the vernacular of rock & roll in the 21st century.