Available on: Matador LP
As the title of Queens of the Stone Age’s sixth album suggests, no other band of their generation has turned out such fully-formed, unforgiving albums with such regularity and precision. That is, ironically, until …Like Clockwork, an album that comes six years since 2007’s Era Vulgaris. In the meantime, Queens frontman and bandleader Josh Homme had another child with wife Brody Dalle, launched supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, and — most significantly for this record — had a near-death experience during what should have been routine surgery.
The 2010 incident left Homme bedridden for months, and a 2011 tour celebrating the re-release of their debut album failed to inspire him to “fall in love with music again.” “I think I was just lost, looking for something in the dark,” he recently told an interviewer. “In that dark I found this record.”
With that in mind, …Like Clockwork is the most somber Queens of the Stone Age record yet. The lyrics are obsessed with loneliness, mortality, and the dark sides of love, with Homme posing The Big Questions to himself, God, and the listener. “Is there anyone out there? / Or am I walking alone?” he wonders on ‘Fairweather Friends; “Slowly, can one so lost be found?” on ‘Keep Your Eyes Peeled’; “Where are you hiding my love? / Cast off like a stone” on ‘I Appear Missing, and so on.
The lyrical themes are paired with music that is similarly downcast. With few exceptions, the sneering, thrashing, riff-heavy Queens of the Stone Age is replaced with one looking to reinvigorate the hard rock tradition of the ’70s, albeit with the Queens’ fun-house melodies and sunstroked uneasiness. Musically, …Like Clockwork flows more from songs like ‘Make It Wit Chu’ and ‘Suture Up Your Future’ than the uptempo fist-pumpers that dominate the band’s discography. Likewise, it’s a tighter album than the band’s early 2000s efforts, the sprawling Songs for the Deaf and Lullabies to Paralyze.
The album may be a step slower than previous ones, but Queens in the Stone Age are more than comfortable jamming in the pocket (as Homme’s Desert Sessions often proved). The band gets bluesy on the lovelorn ‘The Vampyre of Time and Memory’, the Southern fried ‘I Sat By The Ocean’, and the sneakingly complex shitkicker ‘Smooth Sailing’. But the band knows where its bread is buttered: lead single ‘My God Is The Sun’ is the type of riff-ready, drum-rupturing desert rock on which they’ve built the Queens of the Stone Age temple.
…Like Clockwork’s strongest moments come when the band plays with well-worn structures and quiet-loud dynamics, flexing songwriting prowess on gently strummed or keyed verses and then launching into operatic choruses (like on ‘Kalopsia’) or orchestral crescendos (like on the title track). The first verse of ‘Fairweather Friends’ finds Homme exploring a lilting falsetto before launching into a kaleidoscopic jam that unleashes guitar, piano, and percussion that is as bright and powerful as the midday sun.
Much has been made of the featured performers on …Like Clockwork, and while the guest list is impressive, these are far from guest verses on a rap album, or even the star parade of Random Access Memories. The testosteroned chorus of Artic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and former-Queens Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri on ‘If I Had A Tail’ would probably be unrecognizable without the aid of the credits, and the same is true for Elton John’s vocals on ‘Fairweather Friends’ (his piano work is notable, though). Trent Reznor’s contributions are slightly more apparent on ‘Kalopsia’; similarly, Dave Grohl’s unrelenting drumming can be familiar (‘My God Is The Sun’), but his contributions are generally interchangeable with those of Joey Castillo. There is something to be said of a band that can tap so many musical icons without ceding the spotlight or deviating from a plan of action: this is still a Queens of the Stone Age record (with friends).
On ‘Smooth Sailing’, Homme memorably sings “I blow my load / Over the status quo.” It’s a ballsy kiss-off on an album that is mostly without Homme and company’s caddish tendencies, and in many ways, it’s true. The status quo for Queens of the Stone Age would be to throw fuel on the mosh-pit fire with more headbanging anthems, even if that formula was showing strain by Era Vulgaris. Either because of age, maturity, or a desire to try for something timeless, the band looked to the legends for inspiration, recreating Bowie, Iggy, and even Skynyrd in their own image (Daft Punk undertook a similar experiment on Random Access Memories, but with Steely Dan et al in mind). So, while …Like Clockwork doesn’t have that many feel good hits of the summer, there are plenty of lullabies to paralyze.