Queens of the Stone Age wear arrogance like nobody else. The kings of California scuzz rock have been sticking their chins out and daring people to take a swing since they first took the stage. Calling them the rock gods that they think they are or saying they’re too tongue-in-cheek for their own good is irrelevant. Like Steve Carell said about Ryan Gosling in The Big Short, they’re so transparent in their self-interest that you kind-of to like them regardless.
Fortunately for them, they don’t slack off. Whether it’s swampy, drugged-out garage rock heard on their self-titled debut, the spooky atmosphere heard on Lullabies to Paradise, to the sexy slide-guitar groove of their last outing …Like Clockwork, the Queens make albums with equal parts expert craftsmanship and pompous sleaze. Now they can add one more artistic touch to their stew of rock: dancing.
Credit Mark Ronson, producer of the band’s seventh album Villains. It’s 48 minutes of thick basslines, heavy drums, and distorted guitars blaring through the speakers, not to mention Homme’s slithering falsetto. What Ronson brings to the table is an emphasis on grooves over titanic guitar work. There’s less slide guitar jamming here and more catchy riffs that lock in with the rest of the band. It doesn’t sound like the Queens are charging through songs to play them as loud and fast as possible, they sound like they want to stay in these swinging songs.
Swinging definitely applies to lead single “The Way We Used To Do,” that sounds like Alice Cooper covering The Brian Setzer Orchestra if they had Buzzcock guitars. Album opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” has a great guitar-bass combo thick and heavy like classic-era Aerosmith’s rock/R&B combo. There’s also a more-welcome presence of organs on the grinding “Un-Reborn Again” and “Hideaway,” which sound like what’s playing if the masked orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut took place at a haunted house. Even the songs that sound like classic QOTSA have a sharper edge to them. The six-and-a-half minute jam “The Evil Has Landed” has two layers of blistering guitar riffs that shift from stretching the music out to be as loud and lasting as possible to going full speed ahead in the song’s last minute. “Head Like A Haunted House,” the actual blazing-fast rock track on the album, cuts right to the point and doesn’t drown itself in pedal effects on the guitar.
Despite its sinister title and horny music, there’s actually a lot of personal reflection on Villains (no seriously). Frontman Homme is a happily married man with kids, so even when he puts on his leather jackets and goes into the studio, he’s thinking about the life around him. “The Way We Used To Do” is actually a pretty sincere love song from a sleazy rockstar looking to recommit his passion for a lover (“If the world exploded behind us/I never noticed if it done/Let nobody dare confine us/I’ll bury anyone who does”) while “Fortress” is actually an empowerment anthem (“It ain’t if you fall/But how you rise that says who you really are/So get up and come through”).
Homme also reminisces about his youth, one as a rebellious anthem against old age in “Feet Don’t Fail Me” (“Life is hard, that’s why no one survives/I’m much older than I thought I’d be”) and another seeing the fear of wanting to live forever on “Un-Born Again” (“Frozen in pose locked up in amber eternally/Buried so close to the fountain of youth you can almost reach”). If anything, Homme might be in the midst of a mid-life crisis and wanting to leave something behind as heard on album closer “Villains of Circumstance” (“There’s no magic bullet, no cure for pain/What’s done is done until you do it again/Life in pursuit of a nameless prey/I’ve been so close, I’m so far away”).
Homme is seen on the album cover with his face blocked by some sort of demon, clearly trying to show the evils of life blinding him. There should be a follow-up cover of Ronson punching that demon in the face before spinning records for the band. For an album full of lyrics that could’ve been backed with colder, more menacing music, Villains is worthy of headbanging and head bopping with you’re a rock fan or looking for one last summer album before the season ends.
It’s unlikely that QOTSA will ever make a record this bouncy again, but it’s refreshing to hear that they can still keep to their core while trying something others might find a betrayal. Queens of the Stone Age have always been fun, but they’ve never been so proud about how much fun they have until now.