Make no mistake about it: frontman Josh Homme wants to unnerve you. If we could describe the vibe on the latest release by Queens Of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork, in a single word, I think “unnerving” would be a good word choice.
It starts with the album cover (‘nuff said), and intensifies with the leadoff track “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, opening with the sound of shattering glass and following up with a low, chunky, tritone-laden guitar riff over a heavy 6/8 swing—and when Homme’s moan-y vocals come floating over the top of it, it sounds like you just walked into a monster’s ball. This almost-threatening undercurrent can be felt consistently from then on, from the angry metal of “My God Is the Sun” to the seductive, almost downright predatory lyric on “If I Had a Tail” (“I wanna suck, I wanna lick / I wanna cry, I wanna spit / Tears of pleasure, tears of pain / They trickle down your face the same.”).
Of course, QOTSA have always done menacing fairly well. But here’s the thing: this music, while being unnerving, is also remarkably satisfying. Anyone can play to angst and dark emotions; it’s fairly easy to dress something up as a vampire. But to do it in such a way that at the same time it scratches a deep-seated itch in the soul—that takes a stroke of brilliance (or perhaps several). That alone makes …Like Clockwork one of the best albums Queens Of the Stone Age have released in quite some time.
So how is it possible for a record to be uncomfortable and satisfying all at once? One big reason, I believe, is the subtext behind it: the songs on this record were predicated by an unexpected near-death experience when Homme’s heart stopped on the operating table during what was supposed to be routine knee surgery. It took him months to recover. That’s enough to make anyone reflect a bit more thoroughly on the things that matter—life, love, death, etc.—and Homme did a great job translating those feelings to lyrics and music. You can hear it in lyrics like “I want God to come and take me home / ‘Cause I’m all alone in this crowd” (“The Vampyre Of Time and Memory”) and “Everyone it seems has somewhere to go / And the faster the world spins, the shorter the lights will glow” on the closing title track. So while the album explores some darker sounds and themes, it also comes across as introspective and real.
And musically—well, musically, it’s hard to find flaws. QOTSA went back to their bluesy roots a bit with this one, even to the point of getting Dave Grohl behind the drums again. I’ve always been impressed with this band’s sonic diversity, and their ability to shift from dirty metal to piano ballads on a dime, and guest appearances by the likes of Elton John, Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner and former QOTSA bassist Nick Oliveri only enhance this effect. Not every band can get away with this large of a musical palette. Whether it’s the chunky guitar work on “My God Is the Sun,” the haunting, airy piano on “…Like Clockwork,” or the electro-tinged Muse-like groove of “Smooth Sailing” (one of the surprise high points of the album), Queens Of the Stone Age embrace all these styles as though they invented them.
It’s often said that hard times make us stronger, and it certainly has proven the case with Josh Homme and company. …Like Clockwork is one of the most personal and masterful records this band has ever made, and is likely to be remembered as a classic.
Even if it is a little unnerving.