Six years is a long time to wait.
…Like Clockwork, the follow up to Queens of the Stone Age’s last album Era Vulgaris has been a while coming. Oh sure, frontman JoshHomme has kept himself busy, between releasing albums with his other bands Them Crooked Vultures and Eagles of Death Metal and producing the Arctic Monkeys albumHumbug (not to mention becoming a dad). Even still, it’s taken six years for a release from the band proper, and the big question is, was it worth the wait?
First off, we should clear something up immediately. This is not Songs for the Deaf II. It seems that there’s been a contingent of the fan base that’s been clamouring for another album in the same vein and if you fall into that category I’ve got some bad news, you’re going to be disappointed. I find it strange that this is still something that comes up three albums on, but to be perfectly honest I can’t say I totally blame those people. Songs for the Deaf was a monster of an album and pretty widely recognized as the bands pinnacle . It was a midnight, headlong rush through the desert where your only companion was your psychosis and an FM radio turned up to 10. If I were actually to make a Top Ten album list, Songs for the Deaf would be on there. With a bullet.
So I understand, you guys. I really do. But again, Like Clockwork (and henceforth I am dropping the ellipsis because I can’t NOT mentally pause every time I see it and this is my blog and I’ma do as I please) is not that album, just like Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris was not that album. In fact, as different as those two were, Like Clockworkis by far the biggest departure for the band since they formed back in 1996. It is also, without a doubt, their best album since Songs for the Deaf.
Like Clockwork reunites the majority of the band that has been around since the early days of Era Vulgaris and before with the addition of a number of collaborators including long time pals DaveGrohl, Trent Reznor and Mark Lanegan as well as some new faces like Jon Theodore and Elton John. Yeah, that Elton John. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic list of talented musicians and it’s produced what, at first listen, feels like the most schizophrenic Queens album to date. The last few queens albums had what felt like a pretty clear theme running through each one. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were ranging into concept album territory, but there was a through line you could grab on to. A trip through the desert. Nightmares and insanity. Our obsession with ourselves. Like Clockwork, however, takes some time to sink into as there’s so many left turns and detours, not only from track to track, but from what your expectations of what this band is ‘supposed’ to sound like.
It doesn’t hit you right away, the first track Keep Your Eyes Peeledsets a pretty familiar tone. Dark, distorted and brooding, it’s familiar territory for the band and sets expectations in a familiar direction. With it’s slow, almost ponderous pace, It’s an interesting choice for an opening track, it feels like something that would be more at home midway through the album. Maybe it’s because of that familiar tone that it was chosen to start things off.
The second track I Sat By The Ocean isn’t totally out of the range of previous Queens songs, albeit a complete left turn from the previous one. While Eyes Peeled is dark and plodding, Ocean is up-tempo, catchy, almost something you’d expect to hear on an Eagles of Death Metal album complete with hand claps.
Then The Vampyre of Time and Memory. A piano ballad, as Hommesings, ‘I want God to come, And take me home/ Cause I’m all alone, In this crowd’.
Yes that’s what I said, a piano ballad, and it’s backing Homme singing about vulnerability and loneliness and the unsurety that comes with feeling incomplete.
This is about the time where you start to realize we’re dealing with a very different Queens of the Stone Age.
This isn’t the first time a piano has shown up in a Queens album, listen to Go With The Flow off of Songs for the Deaf, you can hear one note frantically being hammered as that song barrels down the highway, speed limits be damned. It is, however, the first time it’s been used like this. Even more of a departure, however, is the vulnerability in Hommes lyrics, and if there’s a theme to Like Clockwork, I feel like this is where you’ll find it.
To this point in his career, you would be hard pressed to describeHomme as a ‘vulnerable’ frontman. No I’m not trying to paint him as some aggressive meathead, a meathead can’t croon like that, but more so than maybe any other singer out there, the guy just oozes swagger.
No, not ‘swag’. That’s not a thing. Swagger.
Whether he’s singing about the desert, girls, death, drugs, whatever, there’s an undeniable confidence to the lyrics and his vocals that to this point have been as big a hallmark of a Queens of the Stone Age track as the guitar tone. That’s not completely absent from Like Clockwork, Smooth Sailing is a groovy, sexy falsetto driven song that almost comes out of nowhere with lines like ‘I got bruises and hickies, stitches and scars / Got my own theme music, plays wherever I are’. It’s almost as if tracks like this and My God Is The Sun, a distorted, robotic, riff-heavy monster that’s catchy as hell and probably the loudest song on the album, are there as a reminder. Like Homme and co. are saying “Yeah, we didn’t forget how. Relax.”
But then there’s piano ballads. The title track, and the final song on the album is another one that’s even more achingly sincere thenVampyre. And it’s phenomenal. To be clear it’s not all just a piano and Josh (although I think that would be pretty great too) the song picks up a little once the rest of the band kicks in but that vulnerability remains. Lyrics like ‘Most of what you see my dear, is purely for show / Because, not everything that goes around, comes back around, you know’ continue to present a guy that’s maybe lost some of that swagger and confidence. Or perhaps it’s the exact opposite, it’s aHomme who’s confident enough in where he is, that he can show that side of himself for the first time. Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle.
It’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into this but the fact remains that he’s no longer the same guy he was when Songs for the Deaf was recorded. He’s got two kids now with wife Brody Dalle (of The Distillers and now Spinnerette) and being a dad’s gotta pretty drastically change your outlook on life. Added to that, dealing with depression from being bedridden for 4 months after complications from a routine knee surgery almost killed him, and you can see where these changes might have stemmed from. Regardless of the reasons, the point is, it works. It never feel schmaltzy or insincere or calculated. It feels like a brand new facet of a frontman we’ve had over ten years to get to know, and while some fans might be put off, hey, whatever man, Peter Pan has to grow up sometime. And become Robin Williams. Who marries Wendy’s daughter and uh…wait…hold on…never mind, I’ve lost control of this metaphor, let’s just move on.
I haven’t said much regarding the numerous talented musicians joining the band on this album and there’s a reason for that. If youaren’t already aware of them before going into the album you’d actually be hard pressed to spot where they pop up. As far as collaborations go, the guest stars on this album mainly stay in the background filling in some vocals here, or instrumentation there. Rarely do they ever come to the forefront. The drums on the album are spread mainly between Joey Castillo (who was released from the band midway through recording) and Dave Grohl. Jon Theodore rounds out the trio of drummers as well as taking over for Castillo on tour. It’s somewhat of an embarrassment of riches drummer-wise with Castillo and Grohl bringing their own energy as well as Theodore who might technically be the best drummer to ever join the Queens (seriously check out his work with Mars Volta, it’s bananas).
The track Kalopsia features Trent Reznor who roars into the chorus briefly before fading into the background. The whole thing plays out like leisurely stroll through a coma patients dreams as they descend into nightmares, complete with a ventilator wheezing in the background. It’s another one the tracks that immediately makes you take notice and is easily one of my favourites. Plus Trent Reznor. Did I mention Trent Reznor?
Sir Elton shows up on Fairweather Friends playing the piano and backing up the vocals and again, it’s almost a case of blink and you’ll miss it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the majority of the collaborations blend so seamlessly with the rest of the band, this is still a Queens of the Stone Age album and, lets be honest, the Queens are pretty much the Josh Homme show, and I don’t mean that as a negative. There’s something to be said for a bunch of talented musicians coming together to produce music without this track having to be the Elton track and that having to be Jake Shears track (he’s in there too).
The only two instances where I would have liked to see the supporting players brought to the forefront a little more is with two older friends of the band, Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri. If you’re familiar with the band you know that Oliveri really was the other half of the Queens up until having to leave the band after Songs for the Deaf. This is the first time he’s been on an album since then and it would have been cool to highlight that a little more. Even more so is Mark Lanegan, who’s been a prominent voice on albums in the past, in particular lending his distinctive, gravelly ‘Tom Waits before all the booze and cigarettes’ vocals to some of the best songs the Queens have produced such as Hanging Tree and In The Fade (seriously if you haven’t heard In The Fade, go listen to it right now, one of the BEST Queens songs). You can hear him growling in the background of a few tracks like If I Had A Tail. It’s one of the hookier tracks, with a swinging bluesy groove and a simple but pretty killer bassline that immediately has you tapping you foot. It’s one of the best tracks on the album but as great as it is, I would have loved to hear Lanegan’s voice featured a little more prominently. That being said I do feel like a bit of a douche complaining about a song as good as this one.
I would be remiss to not mention the rest of the band who’s returned. Troy Van Leeuwen (A Perfect Circle, Sweethead) continues to hold down the other half of the guitar work on the album and remains one of the best dressed dudes in rock. Mikey Shoes (Wires on Fire, Mini Mansions) supplies the bass line and Dean Fertita (The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather) rounds out the group on the keys. There isn’t a poor musician in the bunch, they’ve all proven themselves in previous bands and have been with the Queens on the previous two albums including the tours, aside from Fertita who joined in 2007, replacing the late Natasha Shneider (who sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2008). The band meshes in a way that’s evident on the album and even more so live and despite my comment about it being the JoshHomme show, these guys are just as responsible for how great everything sounds. The band seems to almost have a revolving door of talent sometimes but I hope these guys continue to stick around for a while.
…Like Clockwork (there I put it back) is absolutely a departure from what has come before. It’s going to upset some fans, some might say the band’s gone soft, people will continue to look for that return to the Queens of Songs for the Deaf. The evolution of a band that’s been around for this long is a tricky thing. If you continue to release albums that play off of what’s come before, you run the risk of being called derivative and tired. If you change things, you run the risk of alienating your fan base. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t and I don’t envy bands in that situation (who am I kidding of course I do). Some artists try to change things up and fumble along the way (Muse) or crash and burn spectacularly (really Chris Cornell? Timbaland?). Queens of the Stone Age, however, manage to chart a course that takes them to some strange places but they come out the other side stronger for it. Older, wiser, a little more self aware, but still able to make you shake your butt and melt your face in equal measure. …Like Clockwork might seem a little harder to dive in to than previous efforts at first listen but give Homme and company a bit of time and you’ll find an album that earns its spot next to Songs for the Deaf. The future’s looking bright for the Queens, let’s hope we don’t have to wait another six years.
originally posted on my blog but wanted to share it with you guys