It’s been six years since Era Vulgaris, the last Queens of the Stone Age album. But it’s not like frontman and co-founder Josh Homme has just been sitting around in the interim. He worked on the Eagles of Death Metal’s third album in 2008, and he formed the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones. That band’s recording and touring schedule took up most of 2009-10. Still, it’s been quite a while since we’ve heard from the Queens, and …Like Clockwork (ironic album title fully intended by the band) is a welcome return.
The album’s first single “My God is the Sun” continues the band’s tradition of releasing some of their hardest-rocking tracks as singles. The song begins with a simple but distinctive riff, split between Homme and fellow guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and accentuated at the end by Dave Grohl’s hard-hitting snare drum beats. After about 10 seconds of this, the guitars divide into harmonies and Grohl shifts to a driving beat and the song really takes off. The chorus, “Heal them / Like fire from a gun / Kneeling / My God is the Sun”, is typical of Homme’s lyrics, which remain often cryptic and assuredly sun-soaked. This is a song that announces that Queens of the Stone Age are back and they haven’t missed a beat.
Yet nothing else on …Like Clockwork uses that same full speed ahead style. Album opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” is a slow, crunchy jam with a low, low end, squalling guitars, and wailing vocals. It’s not the most accessible song to start an album with, so Homme follows it up with “I Sat By the Ocean”, probably the record’s catchiest track. The easygoing midtempo groove in the verses reveals a heartbroken Homme. This gives way to a bright chorus where he sings, “Imagined I’d be your one and only / Instead I’m a lonely one” and follows it up with “You, me, and a lie / Silence is closer / We’re passing ships in the night.” Tellingly, the end of the song ends in the middle of a chorus sequence, where the lyrics shift to “We’re crashing ships in the night.” It’s a clever musical trick that intentionally leaves the listener hanging and not quite satisfied.
The album also features a handful of genuine piano ballads, all done with varying amounts of Homme’s bluesy guitar licks. “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” stays low-key throughout as Homme sings sweetly, “Does anyone ever get this right?”, until a power-ballad guitar solo shows up as the song’s outro. “Kalopsia” follows “My God Is the Sun” with some of the quietest moments the band has ever done, opening with just piano, bass, quiet guitar, and soft harmony vocals. Queens of the Stone Age can only keep this going for just over a minute, though, until the guitars and drums come crashing in. And the album-closing title track starts with only Homme’s falsetto voice and open piano chords, but then grows into a slow, head-bobbing guitar jam anchored by Homme’s assertion that “Not everything that goes around / Comes back around you know.”
The rest of …Like Clockwork is comprised of muscular hard rock songs that are right in the band’s wheelhouse. “If I Had a Tail” is a punchy track with a majorly heavy chorus and a hell of a backbeat courtesy of Grohl. “Fairweather Friends” is Josh Homme’s version of an all-star jam session, featuring not just Grohl on drums, but Elton John on piano. Backing vocals come courtesy of John, Trent Reznor, frequent collaborator Mark Lanegan, and the band’s former bassist Nick Oliveri. Despite all the star power, though, the song is still dominated by Homme’s lead vocals and distinctive guitar work, which keeps it from being a glaring aberration on an otherwise cohesive album.
Despite some typical darkness in the music and lyrics, …Like Clockwork sounds like Homme and friends are having a lot of fun. It’s recognizably Queens of the Stone Age, but like most of the band’s work, it takes a different tack than their previous records. It’s not propulsive like Era Vulgaris or dense and plodding like Lullabies to Paralyze. Instead, this is a record that feels more loose and laid-back, which is appropriate for a group that’s getting back together after a few years off.