What to make of the return of Josh Homme and the ever changing Queens of The Stone Age ensemble he’s brought with him? …Like Clockwork, their first album after a six year hiatus, is at once perhaps the definitive QOTSA album and a strange departure from the norm. More consistent and cohesive than its predecessors, it throws together elements of their output over the last decade into a record that, while less immediate and certainly softer, may top them all as the sum of its parts.
During the recording process of …Like Clockwork Homme touted the return of the ‘robot rock’ of Era Vulgaris. It’s a statement that’s only half true. The robots are back, but only as one of many cameos from a line-up that includes former bassist Nick Oliveri, Desert Session regular and former collaborator Dave Grohl, Homme disciple Alex Turner and even Sir Elton John. Grohl lends his still-considerable drumming ability to proceedings, and the emphatic thud of his work harks back to the explosive-ness of breakthrough Songs for the Deaf. It’s a reserved call-back though, one of many that the album never fully exploits. Throughout, …Like Clockwork is an album that is more tempered than Songs for the Deaf but retains an echo of its power, less atmospheric than Lullabies to Paralyze but with traces buried in Homme’s croon and guitarwork, and less weird and experimental than the drone-metal of Era Vulgaris but with some of its oddities dotted here and there.
The result is an album that feels like it’s missing something quintessentially Queens of the Stone Age. The power and rawness of earlier releases, increasingly marginalised to an occasional power-trip that would probably be a single – see Little Sister and Sick,Sick,Sick – is now almost entirely absent. It’s strange. It feels at once looser and uncomfortably coiled. You expect Homme and co. to explode occasionally, but here they seem to hold back. It still has heavy moments, take lead single My God Is The Sun, but they pale in comparison to the likes of Millionaire from Songs for the Deaf.
It’s testament to the songcrafting skills of the band that the album still works. The raw power is gone but the swagger is stronger than ever. …Like Clockwork is the band’s most polished, slick album yet. On songs like If I Had A Tail they sound closer to glam rock than metal. It doesn’t thrash, it struts. Homme works his croon harder and smoother than ever before, with the falsetto that he dished out on Era Vulgaris with grating regularity now simply another gear for him to occasionally slide into. What it loses in ditching the extremes of previous albums it gains in consistency. Whereas their three previous albums of the decade had shuddering lows to match their triumphant highs, …Like Clockwork retains a steady level of quality. It’s an album that, in part due to being their shortest work too, can roll by before you’ve even noticed. There’s isn’t a single bad cut to drag you out of the experience. Its consistent quality is perhaps the album’s greatest strength, and what enables it to stand tall amongst their previous works.
That’s not to say it doesn’t grab or that there aren’t any highs. Album opener Keep Your Eyes Peeled is a thunderous, slow-burning masterclass in quiet-loud dynamics, all underpinned by powerful drumming from Grohl , a brilliantly thick bassline that seems to roll endlessly into hell itself, and a wicked guitar lick that wails in intermittently throughout the track to snap your ears to attention. If I Had A Tail, meanwhile, has so much swagger that it’s absolutely irrepressible, right from the moment that vintage 70s riff comes in. Smooth Sailing, a late in the day album reboot, is perhaps the closest the album comes to an instant killer single. It is an indescribably dirty sounding track. I mean just absolutely filthy. In every way. It’s like someone took the cheapest, raunchiest porn and filtered it through a guitar. It’s also really, really good.
That still leaves me with no idea what to make of …Like Clockwork. It’s an eminently listenable, brilliantly classless album that doesn’t have a bad track and has a few great ones. And yet I still feel disconcerted by it. I still haven’t been won over enough to miss the intensity and shock and awe power of classic Queens of the Stone Age. This album doesn’t have that, and I don’t think it has any really classic tracks in the vein of No One Knows or Turning on the Screw either. It at once underwhelms and completely satisfies. There’s no denying the strength of the work here, though. This is already just about nailed on for the hard rock album of the year and is still probably their best album, even if I miss some of the rock and even if it doesn’t have their best songs.
Also, that album cover is possibly my favourite all year.