Premature Evaluation: Queens Of The Stone Age …Like Clockwork
Last June, we published a feature called the Top 20 Albums We’ve Been Waiting For Forever, counting down a bunch of our favorite artists from whom a new full-length was: (A) long overdue; and (B) not totally unrealistic. Coming in at No. 19 on that list was Queens Of The Stone Age. As we wrote in that space:
With trainwreck Nick Oliveri a distant memory and Kyuss Lives touring regularly, we know the new QOTSA has to be near. Josh Homme has said the band’s sixth record would be finished this year, but the clock is still ticking. Maybe he’s trying to get Mark Lanegan and Dave Grohl back on board?
At that point, it had been almost five years to the day since the release of QOTSA’s last LP, 2007’s Era Vulgaris, but it would still be another two months till the band actually stepped into the studio to begin work on LP6. During the recording process — which continued till this past March — Homme would indeed get erstwhile Queens Lanegan and Grohl back on board … and, um, Oliveri, too, along with another former bassist, Alain Johannes. Also participating was Homme’s wife, Brody Dalle (of the Distillers and Spinnerette). And Trent Reznor. And Jake Shears (of Scissor Sisters). And Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys). And James Lavelle (of UNKLE). And Sir Elton John.
Every Queens record comes with a deep roster of all-star contributors, of course; the very first incarnation of the band — pre-dating their 1998 self-titled debut LP — featured Homme alongside Matt Cameron (of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), Van Conner (of Screaming Trees), and John McBain (of Monster Magnet). To some extent, though, that approach has come to feel more like stunt-casting than collaboration. What exactly did Julian Casablancas, for instance, bring to Era Vulgaris’s lead single “Sick, Sick, Sick”? Was there any additional value gained from Jack Black, in particular, providing “handclaps and stomps” to “Burn The Witch,” the third single released from 2005’s Lullabies To Paralyze?
To be clear, I’m not accusing Homme of, like, social climbing or something. As far as I can tell, he’s just a popular guy and a prolific artist, and he happens to pal around with high-profile celebrities, and that often results in music being made. (That’s how he wound up doing the theme song for Anthony Bourdain’s new series, for example.) But it’s created a bit of an identity crisis for Queens Of The Stone Age. The QOTSA contributors wiki is a lengthy and confusing document that offers little insight into the band’s chemical makeup or division of labor. For the five best years of the band’s existence (their five best musical years, at least), it seemed the thing we were talking about when we talked about Queens Of The Stone Age was the Homme-Oliveri fulcrum, but when Homme fired Oliveri in 2004 — and followed that with QOTSA’s excellent 2005 LP Lullabies To Paralyze (and then the very good Era Vulgaris in ’07) — the picture became a bit cloudier. Queens Of The Stone Age albums, it seemed, had more in common with, say, DJ Khaled or Timbaland albums — in which the titular star was equal parts performer, organizer, and composer, aided by a rotating cast of curated supporting players — than they did with albums by other rock bands, especially other rock bands in QOTSA’s rarefied stratum.
But here’s the thing: On QOTSA’s very best album, 2002’s Songs For The Deaf, the contributions of the players other than Homme are easy to pinpoint, if not quantify. Grohl, for instance, plays drums on all but two (of 15) SFTD tracks, and his work on that album is nothing short of revelatory; he raises Homme’s game in much the same way he raised Kurt Cobain’s on Nevermind. Lanegan, who had contributed one lead vocal track to 2000’s Rated R, delivers four on SFTD (one of which he shares with Homme). Oliveri, meanwhile, who had joined the band in earnest for Rated R (on which he offered lead vocals on three tracks), takes the lead on four SFTD songs. Way back in 2000, Homme was quoted as saying of Queens, “It really is more of a musical experiment … It keeps moving and reinventing itself.” Songs For The Deaf is the apotheosis of this statement. Homme is the conductor and visionary, but the album feels as diverse as the animal kingdom, as deep as the earth’s inner core.
Since Songs For The Deaf, QOTSA albums have grown fatter with A-list guest appearances, but relied increasingly on Homme’s voice as the central element. After SFTD, Oliveri was dismissed, and Lanegan and Grohl were no longer able to participate as full-time members, which gave Lullabies To Paralyze a decidedly more homogeneous feel than its predecessor. New drummer Joey Castillo was a fine addition, but Grohl is one of the five best drummers in the history of rock music, one of the few whose playing can achieve a frontman-level presence. Lanegan still delivered lead vocals on two songs (and additional vocals on two more), but Homme was front-and-center for the remaining 12 cuts. On Era Vulgaris, Lanegan was little more than a ghost, delivering harmony vocals on one track, with Homme taking lead for the entirety of the album. Perhaps not coincidentally, QOTSA’s albums have steadily shrunk since SFTD: That LP offered 15 songs (more like 17 with the hidden tracks and digressions), and clocked in at 63:36; Lullabies To Paralyze was 14 songs, 59:26; Era Vulgaris came in at 11 songs, 47:53.
The new one, …Like Clockwork, is 10 songs, 45:59, and while Homme shares the mic with many of guests mentioned above, he’s the lead vocalist on all 10 tracks. Not coincidentally, Clockwork is much closer in tone to Era Vulgaris than it is Songs For The Deaf. That’s dispiriting not because Era Vulgaris is merely a very good album while Songs For The Deaf is a modern classic, but because of the names involved — not Elton John or Trent Reznor (or Alex Turner, Jake Shears, et al.), but specifically Grohl, Lanegan, and Oliveri. …Like Clockwork reunites the band behind Songs For The Deaf, but it’s a reunion in name only: Lanegan appears on just one track, the cheekily titled “Fairweather Friends,” which also features John, Reznor, and Oliveri. For his part, Oliveri gets a vocal credit on two tracks: “Fairweather Friends” and “If I Had A Tail,” which also features Turner and Dalle. As you might expect, none of these singers distinguish themselves in the mix. If any of these guests had demanded compensation commensurate with their name value, QOTSA’s new label, Matador, would have surely demurred, suggesting to Homme that he find a session musician instead to deliver a similar performance (or simply assign that part to any other fulltime QOTSA member: guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, keyboardist Dean Fertita, or bassist Michael Shuman). It would have been a smart cost-cutting measure on the label’s part, and it would not have changed the songs one bit. Even when the guest vocalists are given something resembling a spotlight — such as Reznor on “Kalopsia” — the performance seems at best unnecessary, and at worst, kind of pandering.
The key re-addition, then, is Grohl, who sits behind the kit for six of the 10 songs here, some of which are absolute highlights: “If I Had A Tail” has a leanness and swagger which emphasizes (and is emphasized by) Grohl’s explosive playing. First single “My God Is The Sun” juxtaposes Homme’s metronomic guitar precision onto Grohl’s amphetamine-energy blasting and beating, and matches them both with a sultry Homme vocal, to monstrous effect. At six minutes, “I Appear Missing” is the album’s longest track, and Grohl’s incredible percussion work is on central display throughout, as the song crests to pretty epic heights. But then there’s “The Vampyre Of Time And Memory,” which asks little of the drummer, and mostly wastes him. And it’s still a pretty good song! It just didn’t need Dave Grohl to be a pretty good song.
That’s the essential problem with …Like Clockwork, in fact, and it’s one I’m personally finding hard to overlook. Homme is a very good singer, songwriter, and guitarist, and he’s developed a signature sound that remains enjoyable and can still be quite intoxicating. But his finest work allowed him to recede into the background at points, to focus on the details, while other collaborators were allowed to step to the forefront. …Like Clockwork reduces those collaborators to guests, and throws them into the mix with more guests, and more famous guests, and then even more guests, still, which comes to feel like unjustified excess, putting too much expectation and weight on songs that are, as per usual for Homme, essentially pretty good and occasionally very good. But “very good” isn’t good enough for a roster of this magnitude, a roster with this kind of history behind it, and …Like Clockwork isn’t “very good” consistently enough to merit a final score even that high. For some reason, band and label decided to offer no fewer than six songs from …Like Clockwork in different forms (live performances, in-studio radio performances, videos) prior to its release, so that by the time fans of the band get their hands on a copy (or even a leak) of the album, they could’ve conceivably heard more than half of it already. That seems a dubious proposition in the best of circumstances, but especially so in the case of …Like Clockwork, which is decidedly thin in comparison to the albums that made QOTSA famous, not to mention too light to justify such a bombastic promotional campaign. …Like Clockwork may remove QOTSA from our list of Albums We’ve Been Waiting For Forever, but for the first time, I’m now waiting for QOTSA to come back with something better.
…Like Clockwork is out 6/3 via Matador.