Josh Homme has filled out. Two decades of Herculean-level imbibing, consuming, and partaking will do that to a rock star — even the most untameable, red-haired Lotharios eventually become bulkier, ruddy-faced versions of themselves. But, no, what I’m talking about aren’t the extra lbs that pad the Queens of the Stone Age front man’s 6′ 4″ frame. It’s the inner transformation that Homme has undergone during the last six years (during which QOTSA hasn’t released a single lick of music) that really plays a role in the band’s sixth album. Homme has grown up and grown old — twice becoming a father, surviving a brush with death that involved flat-lining on an operating room table after surgical complications, and descending into a subsequent depression so deep he nearly didn’t recover. Most of the weight Homme has accrued since 2007 has been emotional.
…Like Clockwork is the stoner-rock titan’s method for coming to terms with that burden. It bears the same elephantine yet tuneful tension that has made QOTSA so uniquely devastating, as well as the two other trademarks that seem to follow Homme around: drama and collaboration. During recordings, Homme kicked out one band member (drummer Joey Castillo) for undisclosed reasons and then re-invited another (Nick Oliveri) who he had ousted for undisclosed reasons back in 2004. Dave Grohl returns to man the drum kit, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan once again contributes back-up vocals, and a bevy of notable guest musicians chip in (including Trent Reznor, the Arctic Monkey’s Alex Taylor, and Elton John, among others). It’s enough line-up changes to warrant a Human Resources department.
But Homme’s musicianship makes it work. …Like Clockwork’s pop leanings make it an ideal entry point for those unfamiliar with the Queens’ scuzzy juggernaut of a catalog, an odd thing for a band to be releasing six albums into their career. It remains neutron star dense, weirdly wonderful, and rambunctiously carnal in that vintage Queens of the Stone Age way. For a band predicated on the concept of hard and fast living, the album is both a puzzle and pleasure — a rare glimpse into something that’s survived well past it’s expiration date.
Homme has been the one constant member in QOTSA’s revolving door line-up for the past fifteen years, so it’s fitting that …Like Clockwork remain indisputably his creation; he writes, produces, and sings lead on all ten tracks. It’s a smart choice — Homme’s pipes are in fine form (he tries on a Bowie-like glam falsetto for the closing title track), and the clean recording style makes …Like Clockwork the band’s most melodic and accessible album to date. Pummeling robot riffs and complex stop and start tempos still dominate tracks like “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” and the desert-scorched, Peyote-fueled hallucination “My God Is The Sun,” but they’re offset by orchestral strings and the piano-laced intros of tracks like “Kalopsia” and “The Vampyre of Time and Memory.” QOTSA’s heavy, classic rock vibe remains intact, as much an artifact of their ferocious, double guitar barrages as it is of Homme’s wealth of musical references, on full display whether he’s borrowing guitar riffs from Billy Squire (“I Sat By the Ocean”), da-do-run-run’s from the Crystals (“If I Had A Tail”) or shh-bop, shh-bops from the Flamingos (“Kalopsia”).
Homme’s brush with mortality seeps into Like Clockwork’s bones in the form of both fear and defiance. On the title track, he croons “Most everything you see is purely for show/ Not everything that goes around/ Comes back around you know/ One thing is clear, It’s all downhill from here” just before a celebratory Jimmy Page-like axe solo. Homme once said in an interview that he always has something dangling from him, whether it’s a wallet chain or guitar strap: “I just like the idea that I’m falling apart, like something’s hanging off of me.” Yet Homme encapsulates that metaphor for mortality in one of the album’s most hulking, swaggering tracks, “If I Had A Tail,” like a big-hearted teddy bear wrapped in a suit of chain mail armor. Lest you think he’s gone completely soft, Homme ends group hug “Fairweather Friends” with the kiss-off: “Fairweather friends/ I don’t give a shit about them anyhow” before launching straight into the bone-rattling boogie of “Smooth Sailing,” as raw, raunchy, and cocksure as anything in QOTSA’s playbook. Over a barking funk, he sneers and howls: “I got bruises and hickeys, stitches and scars/ I got my own theme music that plays wherever I are.” It becomes apparent you’re listening to it.
A visual artist known simply as Boneface designed both the graphic novel-style videos and cover art for …Like Clockwork; they depict a troupe of violent, Mad Max-like freaks wreaking havoc in a bombed out city and a woman swooning in the arms of some skull-masked vampire. Queens of the Stone Age has always felt like a little bit of both — enjoying dirty, apocalyptic fun and embracing something seductive but undeniably bad. Too big and dumb to fit in hipster playlists, too smart to be a guilty pleasure, QOTSA are sandwiched somewhere in the middle, yet nowhere near the middle of the road. Even though Homme is a forty year-old dad who’s rubbed elbows with the grim reaper, he’s still the guy whose idea of fun is to “blow my load over the status quo.” It’s that sort of charm that’s endeared him to the newest wave of hard rock bands like Savages, the all-girl, post-punk revivalists who confess they consider Homme a bona fide hunk and “modern-day Elvis.” So is he Blue Hawaii heart throb or Fat Elvis ’77? Again, somewhere in the middle. He may be creaky, but he’s still shaking hips and erasing minds with the best of them. Their namesake might suggest it, but these guys aren’t dinosaurs yet.
Queens of the Stone Age – “Smooth Sailing” – mp3