“If life is but a dream, then wake me up” – Keep Your Eyes Peeled
There’s a moment just before the acid kicks in (or shrooms, for you hippies), where you realize that despite all your ecstatic anticipation, you’re really not prepared for the leap you’re about to take. Whether it be the forensically hyperanalytical look under the hood of your own conscience or the army of fanged peacocks you may see coming through the walls, as the distant sounds of crashing glass grow closer in the first moments of the new Queens Of The Stone Age album …Like Clockwork, that anxiety of uncertainty returns. An anticipatory snake of cold, ominous awe weaves through you as the nightmare carousel grinds back into motion.
More real, raw and direct than ever before in both production and composition, …Like Clockwork is the long-awaited studio return of Joshua Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen, Michael Shuman and Dean Fertita, alongside a trio of drummers – beloved departing slugger Joey Castillo, returning extended-family member Dave Grohl, and newest member Jon Theodore of The Mars Volta and One Day As A Lion. While 2007’s Era Vulgaris was a razor-sharp whipcrack in a vortex of cool, beyond the signature sexual chocolate …Like Clockwork is a trip of honest fragility bleeding through deeply layered textures and harmonies, a pendular swing volleying between forlorn vulnerability and fire-christened renewal. The much-discussed “no trick at all” approach to QOTSA’s typically enigmatic haunt is far more an autobiographical narrative lean than a lack of sonic trap doors.
This is not a free-balling drunk-robot sequel to Songs For The Deaf a decade later, a high-velocity ride packed with a cocksman’s banquet of caricaturized drunken narrators. The guests aren’t paraded out in traditional cameo-spotlight fashion; there are no “take it away Elton!” moments. Yes, Queens finally have their true queen in Elton John, but the glitter-shitting rolodex of contributors on the album is a gathering of threads weaving through a tapestry, rather than ropes of highlighted selling-point rock embroidery. When a new voice rises from the collective, before an impact of presence can be established they step back into the mix, joining the chorus of the great pirate ship once more. You’ll give yourself whiplash turning to the speaker when Trent Reznor’s voice rips through the bass-driven fabric on Kalopsia, but before you can lock in he’s gone. Later, near the end of the magnificently cutting Fairweather Friends, the same happens with Mark Lanegan – and it’s damned delicious.
Barbed with uptempo hooks and a guitar line so perfectly addictive, I Sat By The Ocean is an inevitable radio smash, which in a merciful world will offer the FM dial some relief from the relentless Little Sister and No One Knows rotation. Crisp, bright production makes this a guaranteed home run, but as the sunshine enema really starts to sink in, the lyrical veil is pulled and we realize we’re inside a Rock N’ Roll confessional with an impaled heart. This carries dramatically into The Vampyre Of Time And Memory, and calling it a reflection of recent well-publicized developments in the desert family doesn’t seem a stretch, as we hear Homme prominently enough to recall the pin-drop poignance of Nirvana’s Something In The Way.
The presence of pain is evident. Joshua seems downright despondent, warier than ever and ready to give up the ghost, over a pensive piano line: I want God to come and take me home / ’cause I’m all alone in this crowd / Who are you to me? Who’m I supposed to be? Not exactly sure, anymore. The hopelessness is jarring, an unsettling departure from the signature wisecracking swagger we’re so accustomed to. Aint no confusion here, it is as I feared / The illusion that you feel is real, he sings in a doubled, delicate vocal. A lonely guitar solo flies briefly after the first verse, expressing a bilious, desolate sadness. Does anyone ever get this right? I feel no love.
Like the breaking rays of dawn, a loop of rising chimes at the onset of If I Had A Tail is a warm wave of revitalizing energy, kicking into a subdued-funk Stones groove with a popped collar that flies even closer to Keef in the guitar solo. Sexy, sardonic and shameless, this is a ride in the kind of car Daddy never wants to see pull in the driveway to pick up his girl – because she’ll be walking differently when she gets back. Naturally, it’s only fitting that Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys throws down on this track, as well as Homme’s old-days misfit brother in love, former QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri.
Get your hands dirty, roll up them sleeves / Brainwashed or true believers / Buy flash cars, diamond rings / Expensive holes to bury things, Homme crows before the sharp cascade of a cymbal-rich chorus. Our first taste of new material after a six year absence, My God Is The Sun is the clearest connecting thread to where the band left off, on the gloriously labrynthian The Fun Machine Took A Shit And Died. Dangerously careening, complicated and as epic as the arrival of giant warlord aliens riding rabid elephants, it’s a full flex of the gargantuan velocity the band is capable of – a testament to how hard each member works to push their own envelope. The synaptic tangle burns away to reveal double-barreled good-riddance scorn in Fairweather Friends, a gorgeously finger-pointing fuck you that minces no words in a diagnosis of damnation. The body moves independently when Elton pounds the keys, a rhythmic recall of the dearly departed Natasha Shneider, as swarms of Lanegan, Reznor, the visiting piano-rock legend and more flow in a thick, bubbling choral-vocal undercurrent.
The most straightforward composition on the record, Smooth Sailing slaps you in the face with ten menacing inches of ginger dick. Flaunting bruises and hickies, stitches and scars in a positively outrageous funk strut over a pulsing percussive riff, Homme’s mojo juice is dripping thickly through both vocal and a thick, mean guitar lead. A haunting funhouse-clown vocal creeps into lines like Fear is the hand that pulls your strings, as Grohl sets a mid-tempo pace in the broken-robot stagger. Shuman’s spastic howling at 4:07 pushes the needle into the red – in the very best way.
New stickman Jon Theodore is featured only on the title track, a sparsely piano-driven, mourning heartbreaker that ends the album on the most somber, discouraging note possible: It’s all downhill from here. As we find ourselves on the far banks of the most difficult era of Queens Of The Stone Age’s existence, the spilled blood still drying, new hope springs from Homme taking off the mask and showing what’s beneath the leather. While the tone of the album’s exit is ominous, these are the sounds of fighting demons in real time – honest struggle and catharsis alchemized and tantalized by the most revered gang in Rock.
Josh was right – the best trick of all truly is no trick at all.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.