‘Are Queens of the Stone Age a band?” wonders celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in the publicity bio for their first album in six years, “. . . Like Clockwork.” “An association? A concept? . . . The toxic byproduct of other bands?”
Funny he should ask: Queens have always been a collective of rotating band members and guest stars orbiting frontman Josh Homme, the group’s only remaining original member. As time has passed, Queens have begun to feel less like a group and more like a messy, many-tentacled, shambolic thing, although their albums are more homogeneous and less sprawling than their lineups indicate.
Numerous famous musicians pass through “. . . Like Clockwork,” including Elton John, Trent Reznor, Scissor Sister Jake Shears and the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. None of them make much of an impression. All are used so anonymously, and seemingly without thought to their particular gifts, that it surely constitutes a form of celebrity abuse.
Every former member of the lineup responsible for the band’s 2002 classic “Songs for the Deaf” also appears: bassist Nick Oliveri, who was disappeared by Homme in 2004; Screaming Trees founder Mark Lanegan; and part-time drummer Dave Grohl all show up in a reduced capacity, which is almost worse than not showing up at all.
Darker and less elastic than the band’s last album, 2007’s “Era Vulgaris,” “. . . Like Clockwork” is one of the best hard rock albums of the year and a disappointment at the same time. It follows Homme down his usual wormhole of desire, decay and death, though everything feels more fraught this time around, probably a byproduct of the singer’s near-death experience during routine knee surgery a few years ago.
You might think that a brush with mortality (He says he died on the operating table and had to be defibrillated back to life) would give Homme a renewed appreciation for life. You would be wrong. “I’m alive/Hooray,” Homme croons forlornly on the logy “The Vampyre of Time and Memory.” The spiraling, magisterial suicide ballad “I Appear Missing” (“I go missing/No longer exist/One day, I hope”) sounds much cheerier.
Homme is a hit-and-miss lyricist, capable of knockout depictions of heartbreak (the title track, a devastating ballad with strings) and great flights of ridiculousness (the wobbly Grand Guignol of “Kalopsia”), often simultaneously. The latter is one of two tracks featuring Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, whose vocal contributions are both anonymous and brief. He’s the “Where’s Waldo?” of “. . . Like Clockwork.” Reznor also turns up on “Fairweather Friends” alongside Elton John, apparently deep in his Noblesse Oblige phase. (John reportedly had to duck out in the middle of his session because of a previous recording obligation to Engelbert Humperdinck, presumably the first time in Queens history this has happened.)
Rollicking and loose-ish, packed with superstar cameos, “Fairweather Friends” sounds like one of those songs that was more fun to make than it is to listen to. John’s piano part, one of the few things on “. . . Like Clockwork” that can rightly be described as jaunty, serves as a bed for one of the album’s most memorable hooks. “Hooks are all I really care about,” Homme recently told an interviewer at the BBC, and “. . . Like Clockwork” has plenty, though few of the Top 40 variety. They’re strangely leaden, covered in fuzz and misery and dropped to the bottom of the ocean like anchors.
The twitchy, wolfish “If I Had a Tail” is catchy enough to have been a hit in more sympathetic times. It’s also one of several tracks to make offhand, strangely sinister reference to doo-wop (“Do run run,” Homme suggests. “You won’t get far”). Its White-Stripes-on-codeine thump feels contemporary compared with the influences threaded through the rest of the disc, which favors proggy ’70s rock bands (Pink Floyd) and the modern-day musicians who love them (Radiohead, which shares Homme’s love of falsetto vocals and faith in the purifying possibilities of electronic blippery).
The closing title track is reined in and lovely, and characteristically bleak. “One thing that is clear/It’s all downhill from here,” sings Homme, who probably isn’t talking about the band’s post-2002 albums, all of which lack the necessary defibrillator kick, though he might as well be. Famous houseguests and classic lineup be damned, “. . . Like Clockwork” carries both the expectations born of its long gestation and the DNA of its best work, and it can’t quite deliver on either.
Stewart is a freelance writer.