You’re trapped in a sweltering van with two of the worst imaginable human beings, driving east on the worst stretch of highway California has to offer, and one by one, all the good radio stations are fading to static. “I know it smell crazy in there” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Queens Of The Stone Age’s third album, Songs For The Deaf (which turns 20 this Saturday), is loosely set on the drive from LA to Joshua Tree National Park, near the band’s home base of Palm Desert. Don’t call it a concept album — “Well, it ain’t fuckin’ Tommy,” quipped frontman/sole full-time member Josh Homme — but these 60 minutes of tightly coiled hard rock do a hell of a job depicting a cranked-up odyssey between teeth-grinding Inland Empire traffic and the highway hypnosis-inducing landscapes of the Mojave desert.
By 2002, the 29-year-old Homme had already been in the game for 15 years, having formed a band with four of his future Kyuss bandmates when they were all in high school. It was called Katzenjammer, which is a German slang term for a hangover. (Get it yet? These guys like to party.) Kyuss was ultimately a short-lived, under-appreciated, and hugely influential project, their two masterpieces Blues For The Red Sun and Welcome To Sky Valley both among the greatest stoner metal albums of all time. By the time they broke up in ’95, Palm Desert was busting out of its skintight Levis with bands of a similar ilk, ranging from heavy psychedelia (earthlings?) to muscle car hard rock (Fu Manchu), but all courting distinctly Hell’s Angels vibes and most sharing members.
Homme, who’s never participated in any of the many Kyuss reboots over the years, seemed a little jaded with this whole “desert rock” scene. He decamped to Seattle, the other West Coast city enjoying a mid-’90s hard rock boom, and soon joined Screaming Trees as a touring guitarist. Despite evolving concurrently and sharing more than a few similarities (brawn, drugginess, yarling, etc.), desert rock and grunge aren’t frequently linked and rarely cross-pollinated with each other. Homme was the exception. As early as 1992, Dave Grohl was calling Kyuss “the future of grunge,” playing Blues For The Red Sun to everyone from his Nirvana bandmates to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett in order to spread, as he said in a later interview, “the good word.” Grohl and Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan would become major presences in Homme’s ensuing work, and nowhere more so than Songs For The Deaf.
QOTSA’s third album was the first to list more than two people as “Queens Of The Stone Age” in its credits. Homme enlisted former Kyuss bandmates Alfredo Hernández and Nick Oliveri on the band’s self-titled 1998 album and 2000’s Rated R, respectively, handling the bulk of instrumentation himself but also relying on a revolving door of guest musicians. On SFTD, Homme, Oliveri, Grohl, and Lanegan are given equal billing. This 50/50 partnership between Palm Desert and Seattle legends proved monumental, yielding the best straight-up hard rock album the 21st century’s given us thus far.
Wicked riffs litter Homme’s discography like cigarette butts beer-stuck to the floor of a biker bar — from the Motörhead worship of “Green Machine” to the mystic rock goddery of “Demon Cleaner” during the Kyuss years, from the fuzz monster “Avon” to the sleazy slide harmonics of “Little Sister” with QOTSA — but the first four tracks of Songs For The Deaf spoil us with guitar licks that are just plain stupid. From “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire” to “Song For The Dead,” Homme taps into a compressed, fuzzed-out tone like a man in a trance, communing with 50 years of rock history. Taut and boogying while simultaneously raw and anthemic, there’s something to love for anyone who’s ever headbanged, whether they be metalhead, punk rocker, or AOR boomer. The palette expands as the album progresses, but SFTD opens with a burly mission statement: the loose, garage-y jams of QOTSA’s debut and the eclectic jukebox of Rated R have hardened into a diamond-like precision.
The riffs were always there for QOTSA; Grohl’s drumming wasn’t. In fact, Grohl’s playing on Songs For The Deaf is unlike his work on any other album he’s been involved with, before or since. Taking nothing away from his primal Nirvana highlights, his arena-sized beats on The Colour And The Shape, or his underrated turns on Tenacious D albums, Grohl is locked the fuck in on this album to a degree that’s alien to most rock drummers, more often the province of the R&B and funk drummers he grew up idolizing. The alternately breakneck and booming “Song For The Dead” is just ruthlessly efficient work — the sporadic hits in the intro building up anticipation, the weightlessness of the start-stop pattern of the verses, and of course, the marathon fill that ends the song. Homme said shortly after the album’s release that “If you play with Dave, you’re psyched to play with Dave, but you don’t want him to overpower the music.” Far from it; on Songs For The Deaf, Grohl ensures the music overpowers you. Playing like John Bonham in a krautrock band, he lands on an expressive-yet-robotic style that meshes with QOTSA’s vibe while elevating the energy and dexterity of their sound.
Lanegan and Oliveri are only afterthoughts insofar as Songs For The Deaf is headlined by Homme and Grohl’s generationally white-hot chops. Respectively, the former Screaming Trees and Kyuss veterans provide the album’s muscle and its soul — Lanegan lending his signature rasp to spaced-out, mystical tracks like “Hangin’ Tree” and “God Is On The Radio” and Oliveri leading the charge on the more vein-popping cuts like “…Millionaire” and “Six Shooter,” while also providing chugging low-end with his Fender P-bass throughout. The most prominently featured guest musicians are husband-and-wife pair Alain Johannes and the late Natasha Shneider of the band Eleven, whose flourishes on more obscure instruments like lap steel, theremin, and e-bow give the album more cinematic flair than previous Queens efforts. Oh yeah, and Dean goddamn Ween is on hand to rip guitar leads on three songs. The fact that I’m relegating all of this to one paragraph should tell you how much ass Homme and Grohl kick on here.
The main things driving Songs For The Deaf’s quasi-narrative are several brief interludes/skits that feature the band’s friends (Johannes and Shneider, a couple Eagles Of Death Metal guys, the Cramps’ Lux Interior, the Dwarves’ Blag Dahlia, Twiggy Ramirez, etc.) playing exaggerated versions of radio DJs. These provide some laughs — the most memorable is Dahlia’s “How’s your drive time commute? I need a saga, what’s the saga?” to open the album — but like most skits, they’re not integral enough to the album that you crave hearing them on your 20th listen. It’s an interesting idea by Homme, who’d driven the 120-mile trip in question umpteen times in a car that lacked a cassette or CD player, but really, the music feels enough like a strung-out drive through a seedy landscape as it is.
After Dahlia’s opening spiel, some of the first words out of Oliveri’s mouth are “Space truckin’, four on the floor/ Fortified with the liquor store/ This one’s down, gimme some more.” This is seconds into the first real song (not counting hidden/muffled track “The Real Song For The Deaf”), and already these guys are out of booze. Throughout the rest of the album, references to the road, the desert, and the sun abound, all cut through with depravity and frustrated exhaustion. In 2007, Homme remembered everyone being “extremely fucked up” during the making of Songs For The Deaf, and that comes as zero surprise. “First It Giveth,” in particular, seems to tackle addiction head-on:
I’m in you, now you’re in me
I can’t tell
You’re so cruel, more than me
It is true (That’s right)
Loyal to only you, up your sleeve
I want some (Come on, take it)
Of all of you (It’s yours)
In contrast to the tight compositions of the first few songs, the singing on the album usually sounds either weary and forlorn (if we’re talking Homme and Lanegan) or black-out belligerent (that’s Oliveri). Eventually, the music follows suit, never slacking in its execution, but curtailing the breakneck assault in favor of more psychedelically foreboding hues. By the time hidden closer “Mosquito Song” hits, we’re in “Easy Rider as written by Cormac McCarthy” territory. This arc does a much more vivid job depicting the actual drive in question than the radio DJ snippets, a drive that Homme once said “makes you feel like you’re letting go — more David Lynch with every mile.”
Fittingly enough, the region containing most of those 120 miles shares its name with the film that is, to date, Lynch’s most recent. Inland Empire arrived four years after Songs For The Deaf, and it wasn’t even shot in the sprawl east of LA, so there are really no parallels to speak of there. But the album feels very much like the product of the actual Inland Empire, rather than the wide-open desert rock of Kyuss and the LA sleaze of later QOTSA output. Once unending farmland, the gargantuan reaches of Riverside and San Bernardino counties are now known as a “logistics mecca” (according to Bloomberg), home to endless distribution centers as well as the worst levels of ozone and air particulate pollution in the country. More crucial to SFTD, in 2007, Forbes reported that the region had both the highest rates of fatal auto accidents per capita and the worst traffic in the nation. So yeah, Homme and Co. weren’t having a blast driving back and forth on the 10. (Also worth a mention is that the IE’s meth problem was so bad in the mid-2000s that it was Vince Gilligan’s first choice for Breaking Bad’s locale until he was swayed by New Mexico’s tax incentives for filmmakers.)
If you were in that car with Homme, you may not have been having fun either, especially if Oliveri was there too. These guys are both on-record with some extremely yikes behavior over the years, headlined by the 2011 story of Oliveri being arrested on domestic violence charges after an armed four-hour standoff with a SWAT team (somehow, he pled seven felonies down to one count of cocaine possession). Homme kicked Oliveri out of QOTSA in 2004, alleging that he did so after hearing that he was abusive towards his girlfriend, but don’t thank him yet. In the following years, Homme’s (deep breath) gotten into a public brawl with Blag Dahlia, yelled homophobic slurs at fans, kicked a female photographer in the head, been sued by a fan who claims Homme attacked him after he asked for an autograph, and most recently, been slapped with a restraining order by his teenage daughter — part of a messy fallout with his children and ex-wife, who alleges physical abuse of both herself and the kids as well as drunk driving with the children in the car. For what it’s worth, the usually angelic Dave Grohl gave a “hard ‘no'” when asked to comment on Homme’s alleged domestic abuse last year.
So fuck, man. Queens Of The Stone Age went out and made a true rock and roll all-timer with Songs For The Deaf, but half of its key players also mimic every ugly rockstar cliché in the book. Some of that menace and those demons are integral to SFTD’s vibe, and the Oliveri-led bitter breakup songs “Gonna Leave You” and “Another Love Song” are especially not fun in hindsight. If you’re dead-set on doing so, you can probably separate the art from the artist on most other Kyuss and QOTSA material, but aggressive, addled scumbaggery is imprinted in SFTD’s DNA. You can’t unhear it, just like you can’t unhear Led Zeppelin’s mudshark, or John Lennon’s domestic violence, or countless rockers’ courtship of 13- and 14-year-olds in the ’60s,’70s, and ’80s.
If you have zero desire to get into that van and feel Homme and Oliveri’s eyes burning into you as they leer around looking for that pill they dropped, that’s perfectly understandable. Being in that passenger seat is probably only fun from a distance. The drive from LA to Joshua Tree is only half the length of Raul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s Fear And Loathing trek to Vegas, but Songs For The Deaf is every bit as thrilling and disturbing as Hunter S. Thompson’s contribution to the druggy desert drive canon.