It’s no secret among the socially unlucky that Queens of the Stone Age have roots in a certain microsubgenre known as “desert rock.” The term has never really worked for me; maybe especially when it comes to this, the most “pop” album arguably located within those borders. This is my feeling despite the Los Angeles-to-Joshua Tree road trip mythos which is prominently baked into it. Barring location relevant faux-radio skits, there’s simply nothing panoramic, dry, and existentially threatening about the actual sound of the album. It’s just too… funny. And sexy. And wet. More like Bikini Mud Wrestling Rock?
This is the Queens’ most popular album, with arguably the most beloved of their ever-changing lineup. Guitarist and leading man Joshua Homme is, famously, the only consistent member and shines here at the peak of his capacity for transcendentally gifted pop melody-making. Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees has a couple of credits both as a songwriter and guest vocalist. But this album is perhaps most notorious for the ferocity of madman bassist and co-singer/songwriter Nick Oliveri, as well as perhaps the single finest hour in Dave Grohl’s percussive career. The whole gang is not just playing the daylights out of each of their instruments, but are also recorded in a way which preserves the sense of a fat wall of sound without sacrificing clarity.
We all, of course, know “No One Knows.” It remains the most broadly familiar QOTSA track and will remain so long after all the others have passed away. But even longstanding popular saturation has failed to wear out the novel specificity of its odd timbre and polka swing. Packing a guitar riff which can only be described as some childish combination of paleolithic punch, splat, and chomp, its signature texture is perhaps the most unique in all of 21st century rock radio. Amid violently curtseying guitarwork, Josh Homme intones starved images worthy of the King James Bible and Melville: “Dead lifeboats in the sun.” “Heaven smiles above me.” “Indeed a fool am I.” The vibe is sarcastic, psychedelic, and grave; the total package, sweaty and hypnotic.
But the next most successful single, “Go With the Flow,” boasts nearly as much staying power 15 years on. Despite its relentlessly high-paced channeling of serpentine monumentality, Homme’s languid vocal imbues the song with a detached resolve of stately sensuality. The lyrics here also aspire to realms of laconic myth: “If you believe it in your head” as slow-burn mantra. I admit when I listen to the album, I’m tempted to jump back and forth between this and the violently abrasive opening track “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar But I Feel Like a Million Bucks.” Both songs know the value of explosion, restraint, and a richly varied surface.
In addition to oddball pop classics, the album also offers deep-dyed rock for rock’s sake tracks. “A Song for the Dead” features surely one of the most impressively musical drum performances of the past few decades. Featuring deceptively controlled faux-stops and fallings apart, the Sabbath-esque quake of the band seems to assemble and dissemble itself through nothing more than monstrous, runaway manic energy. The similarly expansive “God’s In the Radio” has a bit more immediately melodic likeability, but is no less aurally rich and imposing. We’re talking stormy, sneaky, and jammy garage rock (if the garage were, that is, hanging off the side of an actively exploding volcano).
I’m not sure why “Another Love Song” wasn’t released as a single. I always thought, and still seem to think, that it’s plainly more distinguished in every respect than third single “First It Giveth” (which is downright monotonous in comparison, frankly). I guess that the record company preferred Homme-dominated singles in order to avoid confusion? Too bad, since the refreshing opening riff is both in the album and yet not of it. Spidery and sun-baked, but more stringy and treble than is usual for this record.
It seems a bit unceremonious, somehow, to reiterate the perfection of the group’s most popular album within a week of their most recent release, Villains, which may be their strangest, most uncategorizable, and yet enjoyably uncompromising set of songs. And 2013’s Like Clockwork was arguably a more maturely considered and consistent set of songs compared to Songs for the Deaf‘s rambunctious sprawl. And yet it’s also difficult not to see this, their most popular album, as also their most essential, signature, defining statement. One of the few albums pushing one hour which are listenable from beginning to end, revisiting Songs for the Deaf on its 15th birthday reminds us of how distinct Homme’s sensibility is. We can now comfortably call it a classic.