When it comes to getting the meaning of a song across, Queens Of The Stone Age always deliver in spades through music & lyrics, as words and sounds increasingly balance each other over a fine thread with each new album. With their sixth LP …Like Clockwork nearing its June release, we’re reviving a favorite feature – Retro Reviews – with a look back at where the band left off in its last studio effort, 2007’s Era Vulgaris.
While not directly concept albums, the Queens’ previous records had characteristics that tied their respective songs together into themes. Coming off the dark Lullabies to Paralyze, QOTSA nucleus Josh Homme took to an outward subject matter on Era Vulgaris – as the title itself states, meaning “the current era” in Latin – again grouping the ideas and their appropriate sonic counterparts all throughout.
Opener Turnin’ on the Screw introduces a good amount of those ideas, with its line “The world is round, my square don’t fit at all” and its cocky-as-hell guitar solo presenting a mindset. After the groove-rich start comes the downright grinding, chainsaw-in-musical-format assault of Sick, Sick, Sick: as it progresses into chaos, its lyrics portray an addictive personality, diving deeper into his/her behavior, simply too in love with the risks to care about the outcome. Just on the edge of collapsing under its own weight, it’s closed by the grudging admission, “I’m gonna change / I don’t wanna change.”
The repetitive, ceaseless riffing – a key feature of the group’s trademark “drunken robot” sound – makes a welcome return to manifest unrelenting self-righteousness. On key moments, however, the devil-may-care attitude is interspersed with absolutely jarring switches in mood, nose-diving into mellower territory. The first example of this is I’m Designer – which contains some of Homme’s most tongue-in-cheek songwriting to date. He spills, ironically, statements about a generation ready to sell itself out at the first opportunity (“I’m high class, I’m a whore; actually both / Basically, I’m a pro“), until the chorus brings the sinking acknowledgement: “It’s truly a lie, I counterfeit myself / You don’t own me / Neither do I.”
It’s on album centerpiece Misfit Love, however, that Era Vulgaris‘ dynamics truly soar. After its menacing synth intro, the song takes on a combination of an ominous beat, a ridiculously dirty bass & guitar riff, and multi-layered arrangements of scat guitars, attacking the listener from all sides. This goes on for about 4 minutes, while Homme tells an entirely quote-worthy story of someone going to the “big city” for the first time, so filled with illusions (“Ain’t born to lose, baby, I’m born to win / I’m so goddamn sick, baby, it’s a sin“) that the outcome becomes predictable. But when it does hit, when all that arrogance eventually crumbles, the impact is tremendous, as the final minute and a half of the track turn into a completely different beast, and Homme sings, “Just a dead man walking through the dead of night / […] Cause I’m already gone / If you bet on me, you’ve won.” The complete change in mood is entrancing all the way through, and one of the Queens’ finest moments put to tape.
As proven on Misfit Love, the way in which Era Vulgaris counterbalances its sense of sheer cockiness with painfully honest confessions is probably its greatest quality. For every razor-sharp, incessant blast of guitars like Battery Acid or 3’s & 7’s, there’s a relatively quieter moment, such as the beautiful, yet desolate Into The Hollow, or the band’s sexiest recording to date, Make It Wit Chu, both showing a pure craving for intimacy, and the latter being the only one to span from Homme’s musical collective side-project The Desert Sessions.
Towards the end of the LP, the dichotomy of ego and sorrow melds into a single feeling, with the latter overcoming the former. The gorgeous Suture Up Your Future sees one trying to fix up his life after it’s already too late, as reflected in the song’s hectic ending, where four guitar tracks slowly become buried under a single, echoed one, until it fades away. At last, River In The Road and Run, Pig, Run act as part of a single sequence: the first, an attempt at self-sacrifice to save a loved one (“Run, darling, run. I’ll stall them if I can / You’ll escape and I’ll be left rotting on the vine“); the second, a blind seek for revenge (“Run, pig, run / Here I come / There is no safe place to hide“). After 40 minutes showcasing the multiple facets of deception, a violent finale such as this one can only be fitting.
It’s safe to say that Era Vulgaris is a bold step forward in complexity for QOTSA, on all accounts. The “common era” theme shows the trials of youth, but maintains the feelings of sarcasm and empathy towards those trials at a safe distance from each other. At the same time, the Queens’ music is at their most vibrant and varied yet, piling various, colorful layers of guitars and keyboards on top of each other, in a carefully orchestrated sonic orgy. The songwriting partnership of Josh Homme, Troy Van Leeuwen and Joey Castillo can’t be overstated here – not to mention the reliably excellent production by Chris Goss. Era Vulgaris stands tall among the band’s other LPs, not only for the way it sounds, but for actually having something worth saying, and doing it so well. If we’ve come to expect a lot from the Queens every time they go into the studio, it’s not entirely our fault.
As a bonus, here’s a YouTube playlist with live performances of the entire album:
Era Vulgaris pairs nicely with Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero (also from 2007) as a couple of zeitgeist records, one focusing on the political aspects of an era, and the other on the people so in love with their social surroundings, that they’re oblivious to politics. Ironically enough, NIN mastermind Trent Reznor sings on bonus (title) track Era Vulgaris, perhaps left off the album because it blatantly gives away so much of its meaning – but that likely had more to do with label issues.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.