Villains has been billed as the best Queens of the Stone Age album since the glory days of Rated R and Songs for the Deaf and a straight-ahead dance record focused on fun and accessibility. Both things are simply not true, on top of being completely at odds with one another. The band’s most heralded albums were rugged rock ‘n’ roll blessed with precise and swanky guitar play, bludgeoning speeds and hypnotic harmonies.
The presence of producer Mark Ronson, who is responsible for hits like “Uptown Funk” and Lady Gaga’s “Joanne,” might lead some to think that Queens of the Stone Age decided to follow up 2013’s dark-but-well-received …Like Clockwork with a play for the pop charts. That may be true but the actual recording doesn’t suggest that was the intention. What we get is a nine-song album with four or five strong singles and some interesting experimentation marred by a spotty production that at times leaves lead singer Josh Homme lost in the mix rather than leading the charge.
There’s a sense that Homme wrote “Villains” while strolling through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—borrowing a riff here, a solo there. His lyrics betray that he’s been pondering his own legacy as a rock musician. He and some of his bandmates spent the last two years touring as Iggy Pop’s backup band for an album they helped write—an album where Pop considered his lasting influence on rock ‘n’ roll. That stint followed …Like Clockwork, a critically acclaimed effort that offered a rare glimpse into Homme’s private life and emotional struggles. Villains finds Homme trying to reclaim his status as an icon, inviting listeners to forget that he is, in fact a human with human problems. It’s hard to put humanity back in a box.
Album opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” recalls the unbridled rock ‘n’ roll joy of the opening tracks of Songs for the Deaf with a funky groove and Homme singing, “Me and my gang come to bust you loose/We move with an urgency/ Between pleasure and agony/oh oh ah/That’s the sound that’s calling me,” like he’s channeling Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. The track recalls Homme’s work with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones on Them Crooked Vultures.
“The Way You Used to Do” keeps the energy going with a ZZ Top-meets-The Stooges vibe full of hand-clap percussion, slinky guitar leads and Homme’s come-hither croon. But the production is spiky and disjointed, leaving the track feeling like it was pieced together; it is momentum killing. The dance beats shutdown when that track comes to an end.
“Domesticated Animals” plays out like an Iggy Pop collaboration with Ennio Morricone—things get dark quick with Homme demanding “Tell me where’s the goddamn gold!” and following that up with “All for one, all for naught/Perish, baby, perish the thought/Beat the kids…to the punch/You’ve got heart/ I’ll have it for lunch.”
Homme has always thrived when working with a varied group of talented musicians. The legendary Desert Sessions recordings featured members of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Nine Inch Nails, Homme’s former bandmates from Kyuss and PJ Harvey. The series seemed at times to be not just a source of inspiration for Queens of the Stone Age but an actual testing ground for what would become some of Queens’ biggest hits.
Without Desert Sessions and strong collaborators who have been featured on many QOTSA albums–like Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and former bassist Nick Oliveri–Homme’s inspiration seems mostly derived from his recent work with Iggy Pop.
If “Head Like a Haunted House,” a song that unabashedly pays homage to The Cramps, feels doubly familiar it’s because Homme did a much better version on Era Vulgaris.
“Un-Reborn Again” mashes T.Rex’s “Telegram Sam” with David Bowie’s “Heroes” and thrives on Dean Fertita’s keyboard licks–it begins to fail when Homme’s chorus is lost in a cloud of layered production and then kicks back in as violin, viola and cello rise up mimicking Homme’s guitar licks.
Both “Fortress” and “Hideaway” are cozy ballads that make reference to Lou Reed and would fit just fine as B-sides on QOTSA’s Rated R.
“The Evil Has Landed” arrives late on the album dancy, catchy and ominous–a six-minute “Lust For Life” via Led Zeppelin. “Villains of Circumstance” closes the album with a melody taken straight from “Tears for Fears” tormented by Hommes cascading guitar licks.
Villains shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed–in the current rock and roll landscape it is an album that deserves praise. But it works much better in theory and hype than it does as a functioning record. The long hiatus that delivered …Like Clockwork was justified–it birthed a QOTSA album the likes no one had ever heard before. The four years between ...Like Clockwork and Villains doesn’t make much sense as the album Homme delivers is a summation of the band’s previous works recorded by a producer who doesn’t seem to know how to empower the band.