Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Queens of the Stone Age’s seventh album, Villains.
Josh Homme isn’t rock royalty or a riff god or a savior or what have you: he is a mere mortal who looks better than you, plays a meaner guitar than you, and is in a cooler band than you. He does represent an ideal rock frontman though: a flexible voice, an even more flexible hand, and a knack for catchiness. Queens have become one of the last few relevant rock bands for those reasons. They’re a modern analog for the Stooges: plenty of subtitles to dissect for the intellectuals, never at the expense of big-assed, no qualifiers needed rock anyone can plug into. Villains, their seventh record, has funk, hooks, leather jackets, ramshackle, and some light synths: frankly, it’s what we need from a commercial rock record in 2017. Homme has also rediscovered the spark of Queens, something that was lacking in …Like Clockwork, with a sense of adventure that’s manifested differently here yet is always present in his work.
ZZ Top’s Eliminator has been a common reference point for Villains; that’s only partially true as they don’t resemble a specific album so much as a conflicted era. Homme and crew try on the role of a big rock band coming into the ‘80s confused by new wave and synthesizers, the shag of the ‘70s giving way to compression and Miami Vice suits. Of course the act is thwarted by Homme’s skill for hooks he can’t shake: he’s at most unencumbered in some time here. “The Evil Has Landed” and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” sound like Zeppelin if they managed to record one more album in the early ‘80s and it turned out killer. The boogie of “Trampled Under Foot” permeates through both, with a little bit of primal fire that sends “Evil” out with as much bombast as its intro was angelic. Jon Theodore plays like if John Bonham were less of a rambling beast and more of a disciplined funk drummer, swinging but with a cold precision. They’re an organic band trying to be mechanical on here, and the contrast works. “Domesticated Animals” has an industrial post-punk groove with a rock n’ roll heart, the rare mid-paced burner that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Homme’s been a master retro-futurist since the ‘90s, so it’s no surprise he takes on rock’s turbulent state in the early ‘80s and comes out with a great set of songs.
Queens are often viewed in the lens of opposition against mainstream rock, specifically the nü-metal of the early 2000s and the mall-emo that would take its torch in the later part of the decade. We have to take into account now that “indie” has been in the mainstream for some time, and Villains subverts that end of rock too. In the wrong hands, “The Way You Used to Do” would be Youtube ad fodder, probably for a mass-produced swill or an outdoor gear company — Theodore’s snappy drums and the hollowed-out guitar fuzz are a bit cheery and palatable, even for them. Leave it to Homme to make that combination work by oozing charisma all over it, making it a dance track headbangers can shake their combat boots off for. “Head Like a Haunted House” acts as the punkier foil to “Used to Do,” an homage to Homme’s own punk influences, especially that of his former collaborator Iggy Pop, that also sends up a lot of the garage clones that wish they could be a tenth as cool as a strand of Homme’s hair. Villain itself is a reversal of the lounge act that Homme and Pop created with Post Pop Depression: still slick and coiffed, Homme embraces his rocker edge once again. If Pop was on this, it’d be his best album since Lust For Life.
“Uptown Funk” producer Mark Ronson produced Villains, and here’s the weird thing about that: its sheen skews Queens back towards the more rollicking days of Rated R and their self-titled debut. Songs For The Deaf is a certified classic, but it’s not a straightforward album by any stretch, and Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris both went into the weeds too. It’s not back to basics — it’s a reaffirmation of what worked with Queens in the first place. Homme could have done that simply by showing up to the studio and still have an edge on every hard rock band; it good that he cares at least a little bit.