Review Summary: Dancing the night away on prosthetic legs..
Up until about the autumn of 2006, Josh Homme’s trajectory seemed to be one of pointed discipline and a cracking good time. He’d forged the Queens of the Stone Age and set them on a course of steadfast workmanship and casual cool. The band toured incessantly, crashing through the summer festival circuit and spending all other months of the year spilling blood on stage, in venues that grew unfalteringly from clubs to mid-sized theatres to small arenas – a dependable product of hard work and a sound worth rallying behind.
From any aesthetic angle, QotSA’s path has been easy to get behind. For a good stretch, they were just about the only relevant rock band kicking around, and to some degree, they remain that band – a collective huddled behind a charismatic leader who savours guitar viscera and desert affectations in the face of an enduring pop heart.
2007’s Era Vulgaris
proved to be a balancing moment for Homme, an album that by his own accounts was the first time that roiling creative momentum staggered in the studio. The resulting album, maligned by fans and critics, nevertheless still carried that patented QotSa swing, the last time they would carve music that was all their own. And for all the flack that has been thrown Era
’s way, especially as the ‘monumental’ …Like Clockwork
rounded a corner, in ways that record has aged better than parts of Lullabies
and beyond, its dense kraut-rock tilts and desert disco penchants bashing away against the portrait of an artist stumbling for the first time in his professional life.
became a watershed moment for Homme. The album, a moody, patient opus, became something in and of itself, a record that drew people to his band outside of what QotSa had previously stood for. That instant is easy enough to understand. Clockwork
retained just enough of Homme’s painstakingly-established id, all the while fanning out into the old pivot points that have been driving rock music for the past 50-odd years – Zeppelin, Queen and Bowie loomed heavy over Clockwork
, spliced seamlessly into the mold QotSA had shaped. And while one could do worse than those influences, to some level, it seemed a regress, even if it was so elegantly presented. After managing a unique, inimitable sound through so much hard work, Queens were just about the last band who needed to scour those old channels of inspiration. Still, after the relative misstep of Era
, a slight retread was understandable, and Clockwork
was and is a singularly important tier in Homme’s timeline – mending crisis through deconstruction, forming a new maturity and sophistication as he rounded the 40-year mark.
Which brings us to Villains
, a left turn and as radical a change as Homme has undertaken so far, even if it might still carry some of that desert pulse, albeit fainter and fainter. The waiting period leading up to Villains
has been one of great gestation for both Homme and his listeners. Everyone who was ever interested in Queens was waiting to see where the mastermind would take his vision, after reaching a seeming peak. And it’s difficult to deny Homme, however much or little this particular batch of songs might speak to a mossy QotSA fan, a fan of good rock, a fan of pop, or of music in general. He is charming, self-possessed, intelligent and incredibly good at what he does. He’s also earned his stripes by any measure, through sweat and sinew, and so to a degree, whatever he does is justifiable and an end in itself. Still, Villains’
castrated aspects are hard to ignore.
Homme being Homme, some effortless beauty and brawn pummels across Villains’
homogenized strut. The relentless guitar brio of “The Evil Has Landed” manages to serrate its way through the song’s glossy sheen. “Fortress” actually snares some unsettling atmosphere through its run. Closer “Villains of Circumstance” is all temperamental existentialism and the finest track here, in no small part because it seems to have come into existence long before the rest of the album did. The bulk of Villains
unfortunately presents little more than a series of numbingly forceful exercises in manicured bad-assery. Homme has always had that Wild One-Brando streak in him, but never before has it been such a put-on theatrical simulacra. This isn’t Bowie moving through personae. The Thin White Duke has had his own share of bad experiments, but none of them ever sported such a dulled bite.
It isn’t even that Villains
is particularly bad. It’s that this is an album a hundred other acts could have made with equal quality control, a lot of those bands being Queens’ own inferior progeny. These Villains
biggest crime is that for the first time, they let the music usurp them, instead of jilting it and standing it up on its head.
Ronson will become an easy whipping child for any qualms fans might have. But fact is, Homme is a capable producer who has always kept a keen eye on his end product, not to mention that he was the one who picked Ronson in the first place. The reality of the situation is that Ronson’s presence on the album is likely a marketing moment more than anything, a way to springboard off his good chart graces in Homme’s sudden decision to march straight towards pop’s upper echelons.
There are buzz-phrases that spring to mind when first stacked against what Villains
is – “It’s the album they needed to make after the cataclysmic catharsis of …Like Clockwork
,” and “If any other band put out this album, it wouldn’t be dissected so critically.” But it doesn’t change the fact that it wasn’t
any other band that made Villains
, it was Homme and his Queens. And that navigating fun through his own prism has never come from such a pandering angle from him. Eagles of Death Metal, latter-day Desert Sessions and even his short stints with Them Crooked Vultures and Iggy Pop have all mustered that danceable ease of a man having ‘fun,’ all of them without slinking through industry thresholds so clumsily and self-effacingly. Yes, at its heart this still sounds like a Queens album. Yes, this is catchy and competently-arranged, if neutered. And yes, they can still put on a hell of a live show, where the new songs will find new life and form and breathe easier. But it doesn’t make these actual songs or this album anything more than what they really are, does it?