During the Era Vulgaris tour, Queens of the Stone Age would often break down their anthem to wanton drug use Feel Good Hit of the Summer to a whisper and Josh Homme would sing a few grabs of Amy Winehouse's Rehab. The band would then abruptly stop and Homme would stare down the crowd and pronounce arms outstretched, "I cannot be killed." However, no matter how invincible he seemed, the Queens lead singer was not immune to mortality. As has been discussed in many articles for Like Clockwork, Homme briefly died in an operation on his knee and was revived on the operating table. After being bedridden for months, he fell into a deep depression which formed the basis of the album's themes. When you're a father and husband, there's nothing like death to make you reassess your priorities and I imagine being a badass musician suddenly looked like a hollow pursuit. As such, Like Clockwork sounds like no other Queens record and is all the more glorious for it. Gone is the soundtrack to the apocalypse as imagined by a merry band of swaggering rock n' roll pirates and in their place is a deep meditation on death, humanity and love. This is not your mother's Queens of the Stone Age.
There are a number of things I want to discuss but I think the main thing is that this seems like a totally uncompromised project. From the lyrics, sounds and even Boneface's blood splattered album/video art, this feels like a deeply personal and clear headed vision of Queens. The music is by turns tough, weird, melodic and torturous but it is all laced with a new found vulnerability and sincerity that was never a hallmark of the Queens' sound or mantra. The closest Queens have come in the past is I Never Came, a ballad hidden at the back end of Lullabies to Paralyze (Queens other notoriously bummed record) but that was a detour amongst that album's carnival-esque darkness.
Let me digress for a second: Lullabies is often criticised as a let down (let it be known that Queens have never made a bad record) but I think they were in an impossible position after the their career defining Songs for the Deaf (more on this later). In retrospect, Era Vulgaris felt more like a reaction to the negative press Lullabies received and suffered for it. Songs like Sick, Sick, Sick sounded like Queens' by numbers, it felt listless, compromised and an obligation. Where Era Vulgaris was great was where they got funky and brutal (Misfit Love) or just plain weird (Run Pig Run). Where Like Clockwork succeeds is that it combines the darkness of Lullabies and the weirdness of Era into something new (side theory: Queens work in three album cycles - similarly, the robot rock of their debut + the melody laden hallucinations of Rated R culminated in Songs for the Deaf). As such, we have a distilled, pure version of their sound or to quote Hunter S Thompson, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Weird. What does that even mean exactly? In this context, I think Queens have taken those weird songs and sounds they used to hide at end of their records (Skin on Skin, Run Pig Run), brought them to the fore and normalised them. No more so than opener Keep Your Eyes Peeled which sounds more like a predatory animal circling it's wounded victim than a song. The riff is subterranean and brutalising and claws for your attention. Most people writing about this song will mention the key lyric in this song as being "If life is but a dream, then wake me up." Fair call but for me, the line that speaks most is "Shotgun, never behind the wheel anymore." Homme is no longer in control but in the passenger seat. Given Queens have pretty much always been about control: their destiny, their sound, their legacy - they were always the tough guys in the room, this is a major concession. The weird thing about Keep Your Eyes Peeled is that the first few listens sound jarring and sickening but then it settles into a strangely compelling pop song.
The second song, I sat by the ocean, while much more convention seems to be derived from Lullabies' Broken Box, a song about an ex's, ahem, vagina. Another deep track it was based around an unconventional structure and again, weird. I Sat by the Ocean sounds like a break up song but I would argue it's not; it's about identity, the thought of who we are and what we are. The chorus tagline of "We're passing ships in the night" changes to "We're crashing ships in the night" at the song's death. The reconciliation of the self (post-death perhaps) and image is jarring and confronting. The album's pop monster, If I had a tail, appears to be recounting the vapidity of rock god and fame asprirations. It starts with the throw aways "Giuchie, Giuchie, Oh la la, the Do run run, You won't get far," and then follows the emptiness of fame. Strangely, this is contradicted by the groaned vocal ear worm that follows the chorus that will haunt your dreams. If any song will be fucking huge off this record and make Queens anymore famous, it'll be this one.
It's not surprising that a man from the desert would appeal to the sun for redemption and My God is the Sun which sounded slightly askew prior to the album's release sounds like the most conventional song here. The respirator wheeze and jazz noodlings of Kalopsia gives way to paranoid ravings of a patient in straps ranting at unseen foes, "Copy cats in cheap suits all playing it safe/ While cannibals with their noose consume a parade."The weakest song here is Fairweather Friends which is an odd jigsaw puzzle of a song that makes more sense the more you listen to it and goddamn, the guitar tones on that song are golden. Smooth Sailing is a funk sleaze number in the vain of Them Crooked Vultures and its odd strut is somewhere located between disco and devastation. It is universally great and I imagine nine months from now a number of babies will be born courtesy of this song.
Which leaves us with three songs to discuss. The first is The Vampyre Of Time And Memory, a piano ballad at the front end of the album. It is as vulnerable as Homme has ever been before and again it seems to be explore the sense of identity post-resurrection. Yes, he has survived but the protagonist in this song is lost:
I've survived, I speak. I breathe, I'm incomplete
I'm alive, hooray, you're wrong again 'cause I feel no love
Does anyone ever get this right?
When he says the word 'hooray', it is the most sardonic and bitter word uttered on the record. The song itself builds to a flipped out blues solo which is as beautiful as it is unhinged.
The album centrepiece is I Appear Missing, a slow roar through Homme's trauma. The song itself lopes along but recounts the ever maddening loss of self, control and identity - themes that circle the album like vultures waiting for a meal. The lyrics are fantasic:
Calling all comas,
Prisoner on the loose.
A spitting image of me
Except for the heart-shaped hole where the hope runs out
Shock me awake
Tear me apart
Pinned like a note in a hospital gown
Prison of sleep
A rabbit hole never to be found again
The song builds and climaxes through a false ending building to the single flashpoint of release on the whole album. The album breaks like a wall coming down where the shrieking solo kicks in at 4:22 and builds to the revelation and redemption of the final lines "I never loved anything until I loved you." The whole final coda is incredible, a plea for understanding and breaking through the haze of depression. It is probably one of the best songs Homme has ever written.
The album concludes with the title track that proclaims that "it's all downhill from here." Whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate but I'd like to think it's a nice metaphor for Queens of the Stone Age as a band. Now that they've released themselves from the expectation of what Queens should be, they now have an endless horizon of possibilities of where to go next.
Let's move onto the sound of the album. This is not a riff heavy banger of yore but has a more considered sound. The guitar tones are tasty, well thought out and gorgeous ranging from seventies prog squeal to concrete mixer crunch. A common complaint about this record is that their are a number of guest appearances (Reznor, Lanegan, Arctic Monkeys kid etc...) but you can't really hear them. I for one am glad for this. I'd much prefer spending an hour writing about how great this album is than discussing how weird that Elton John duet is. Everyone of the guests is serving the larger vision of the album and their contributions, while discreet, no doubt add to the sonic tapestry of the record. The other thing is that Queens sounds more like a functional unit than they have since Songs for the Deaf. The real star here is bassist Michael Shuman, whose bass tones and playing are outstanding particulalrly the sympathetic lines on Vampyres and Like Clockwork. Sure it's reassuring to hear Nick Oliveri's sinister whispers at the end of If I had a tail but I'm not sure the need a Tension Head to set this record straight.
Finally, let's talk about the elephant in the room. A couple of friends whose taste in music I respect have spoken about their disappointment in the album or as Claire puts it, "I miss the screamy man." OK, it's no Songs for the Deaf but how could it be? That band hasn't existed for over ten years and the Queens of today is a very different beast. Don't get me wrong, I love Songs with a firey passion but that album is going nowhere. I'd argue that Like Clockwork is actually perfect because it's not beholden to Songs like Lullabies and Era were. Homme is free to write about things that matter to a forty year old man rather than a thirty year old one looking for drugs and trouble. For me, this album marks a clear delineation between the band of then and now and I happen to be in love with both.
Make no mistake, Like Clockwork is a masterwork on a par with Songs for the Deaf and for me, may one day eclipse it. This seemed almost unthinkable to me prior to its release (seriously, Songs for the Deaf is my second favourite record of ALL TIME). However, as I've submerged myself into the sound and feeling of this record, I have found myself excited, seduced and in love with it's idiosyncratic oddness and fearless vulnerability. It is an album that captures the mania, self doubt and redemption of mental illness and it pulls no punches. It is a great, great great record and far better than I could ever have dreamed.
Album of the year? You better fucking believe it.