I never shared the concerns many held about the union between stoner-rock royalty Queens Of The Stone Age and Uptown Funker Mark Ronson. I suppose if you hadn’t been paying close attention it’d be easy to miss that Joshua Homme’s desert-rock ensemble cast is one of the most groove-heavy outfits in their class. Homme’s got this evil Elvis swagger, a dusty soulfulness he infuses with a devilish veneer. When brushed up against his band’s gasoline-drenched scuzz, it combusts into a volatile, hip-rippling incinerator of rhythm and bruises. Watching the band live is testament to their understated sense of swing, a genre-outlying attribute that deepens both the impact and intentionality of their hard-rock symphonies. Queens Of The Stone Age’s primary materials may be distortion and subversion, but they wield them with a seductive delight, one that’s always been ripe for the movement of the masses.
Sure, Ronson’s the guilty party behind the most inescapable pop hit of this decade so far, but that song is also perhaps the most functional dose of pure entertainment this side of “Hey Ya!” (plus his track record includes the bulk of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, so his credibility was never exactly up for debate). Homme described “Uptown Funk” as “vacuum-tight,” and regardless of whether you find that descriptor positive or negative, it’s indisputably accurate. There’s no wasted space, with every interlocking edge sliced sterile. That may seem at odds with QOTSA’s jagged-minded fuzz and eerie atmospherics, but on its own it makes for a highly effective auditory delivery design. If Ronson could raise to the forefront QOTSA’s omnipresent underlying groove while retaining their acid-burning fury, then he’d have the potential to propel the band toward a new career high.
Alas, Villains — the band’s seventh studio album — isn’t a record of industrial boogie-woogie. After the first few numbers, little here could compete for the danciest single in the band’s catalogue (do you remember the raucous-funk of “Smooth Sailing”? Or the skittering two-step of “3’s & 7’s”?). As it turns out, Ronson didn’t come in and reconfigure QOTSA for the radio. Honestly, to even think that he could was always a foolish bet. This band’s sound has remained remarkably fixed given that their lineup is a revolving door of musicians and cameos; if Sir Elton John couldn’t upend a QOTSA song, Ronson was never going to have a chance. And rather than shifting any of the band’s signatures, the super-producer instead accomplished exactly what Homme said he was there to do: “to make something very tight with the air sucked out of it.”
What Villains amounts to is a crisp reintroduction of the band’s trademark sludge and menace. The songwriting here is as scorched-earth slash-and-burn as ever, leaning heavy on nervy solos against crawling paces, but delivered in a more streamlined package. Album opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” creeps in with a voltaic intensity, at first ominously sparse and then soon adopting a metal-ready chug, before Homme hops in with the biographic creed, “I was born in the desert/ May 17 in ‘73/ When the needle hit the groove, I commenced to move/ I was chasing what’s calling me.” It’s an instantly recognizable refashioning of their frenzied strut, this time more boldly bounce-ready as Homme’s vocals ride atop a springy mess of heavily overlayed amp residue. But the boogie hasn’t smoothed out their bite, and even in lock-step their guitars lurch and lunge like snakes shooting out of pools as if part of a deadly synchronized swimming routine, with Homme playing the role of mystic charmer as he reads off his urgent, ember-ridden prose.
Every song is at peace with the band’s beloved blitzkrieg bellowing, but they each offer distinct stylistic signatures as they arrive there. “The Way You Used To Do” one-ups the intro’s dancefloor defections with squirming, lapping guitars and persistent, mechanical handclaps, fitting lines like “Is love mental disease or lucky fever dream?” and “Let nobody dare confine us/ I’ll bury anyone who does,” into a swinging pop melody. Meanwhile on “Hideaway,” the band tries their take at a tropical bop, with Homme ruminating on a psychologically unbalanced relationship over sensually sinister synths and lounge-ready rhythms. “New prey, soft and easy, entangled forever in my arms,” Homme maliciously croons, before turning directly to his adored victim, “You owe me everything.”
“Head Like A Haunted House” is sand-kicking surf-rock, and the oldest material to surface on Villains, having existed in an instrumental form since 2007. Accordingly, it’s the most familiar-sounding song on the album, although it would’ve fit more neatly on last decade’s Era Vulgaris. Nonetheless, it’s an immediate crowd-please, and the zippiest tune here, complete with stuttering syllables, off-the-cuff whistles, zonked-out call-and-response, and confrontational catch-phrases like, “We’re supreme, sublime…Fucks in short supply.” It’s rivaled in immediacy only by second single “The Evil Has Landed,” which has smacking drums and a Zeppelin-indebted tornado of a guitar riff that in conjunction fondly recall Homme’s Dave Grohl/John Paul Jones-featuring side-project Them Crooked Vultures.
At certain moments Villains’ strict adherence to delivering a tighter punch can make the songs feel a bit thin, with the firestorm of riffs dissipating upon arrival without a base to keep them burning; this band needs to spill a bit of oil here and there to keep it all combustible. But most of the time? It absolutely rips, and doesn’t offer any breaks for listeners to second-guess the band’s process.
Take “Fortress” — essentially Homme’s maudlin, spiritual take on “Mask Off” — which pulls off about a million tricks over its gradual ignition, and at its most thrilling point finds QOTSA retrofitting part of Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey” riff for the song’s Wasting Light-lite conclusion, nodding toward classic rock without ever echoing the genre’s bravado. In fact, “Fortress” finds Homme at his most sensitively introspective, and lines like, “If ever your fortress caves/ You’re always safe in mine,” offer a sweet vulnerability refreshingly appreciated in the mix with the band’s ascetic default.
With its sleek dimensions, the album reminds me of AM, the Homme-featuring “after-midnight” Arctic Monkeys album that at times reminded of Queens Of The Stone Age. That’s not reductive; rather, it’s a welcome rush of spirited energy. The band here sounds younger than they have in years. …Like Clockwork was an elder statesman record weighed down by mortality and aged anxiety; Villains is sprightly, filled with warm blood, and approachably lean.
“Un-Reborn Again,” a sonic highlight with its musty, carnival-core synths and feral nursery rhyme structure, alludes to a desire to reclaim past juvenescence, though does so with an eye cast down on misguided efforts to get there through self-destruction. No matter the consistent acrobatics of the instrumentation, Homme’s on the other side of 40, and he’s already (and unusually) experienced death once along the way. The harrowing experience of briefly dying on an operating table casts a morose cloud over the proceedings of …Like Clockwork, but here, the incident sits away on the shelf like a dusty textbook informing only subliminally Homme’s worldview. “Everybody was drowning in the fountain of youth,” he sings, resolute in his decision to have since grabbed a life jacket and exited the frenzy for himself.
The turn away from the dejected ballads of the last album may also be due, somewhat ironically, to the dire state of our ignorant, idle Western society. In speaking with comedian Rob Delaney for Noisey, Homme said, “I think escapism is a really devalued commodity. That’s why we have ice cream parlors and arcades, so that you can go there and if someone talks politics or religion or this or that you can go, ‘Shut the fuck up for a second,’ you know? ‘It’s an ice cream parlor you asshole.'” As Homme see it, QOTSA can be an antidote to the incessant, exasperating experience of maneuvering this world’s ills: “I don’t expect what I do to resonate with everyone, but it’s there if you need a set to turn a Monday into a Saturday. If you need to turn a noon into a midnight.”
Despite that mission statement, there are moments of real scorn here that, if not directed at our current national identity crisis, operate nonetheless as damning screed. “Domesticated Animals” in particular is a prime Homme hatchet job at regressive political leaders and the people that empower them, either actively or tacitly. “I’ll tell you where the gold is/ It’s in the ground/ You wonder where’s the freedom?/ In the lost and found/ Still not found,” Homme sardonically condemns, before lamenting on the chorus our perpetual show of force and subsequent predisposition toward complicity: “You get right up then sit back down/ The revolution is one spin round… Get right up, kneel and bow/ Shrunken heads parade through town/ Tears of gold, drink them down/ Dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, we all fall down.”
As deep as “Domesticated Animals” stings, nothing about it hits you over the head with its cynical worldview the way of other bands who have seemingly shifted their whole careers toward drawing lines in the sand around the orange elephant in the White House. As notoriously antagonistic as Homme can be, he’s never once directed his venom at listeners, instead offering them the salve of fantastical rock ‘n’ roll that cuts outward, not in. Coupled with the album’s prioritization of inciting instinctive motion and Homme earth-shaking, thunderously tender heart — at its most achingly yearning on the long-distance lullaby and album-closer “Villains Of Circumstance” — it makes for a comprehensive catalogue of this band’s many talents, and the most holistically satisfying entry into their discography in 15 years.
Villains isn’t the best album QOTSA album, but it’s at least their most immediately lovable since Songs For The Deaf. All nine songs would make for excellent, welcome additions to the band’s live show, a 100% hit-rate exceedingly rare for rock bands with 20 years in the game, and a third of those have the potential to make for set-highlights. Many younger acts start running on steam in hardly half the time that QOTSA’s managed to maintain their grease-fire fuel source, making their continued vitality not only impressive but reassuringly inspiring. It remains unclear whether Homme would like us to see him as hero or villain, but there’s no disputing that his example is one that every other band should be striving to follow either way.
Villains is out 8/25 via Matador.