Looking back at when giants walked the earth, rock ‘n’ roll lifespans were decidedly more compressed. When Jimmy Page put out his seventh album, Presence with Led Zeppelin, he was 32. While it’s a very interesting guitar record, the band were decidedly past their peak. At 44, it’s impossible to tell if Josh Homme is currently at a peak, or that it’s yet to come. While it could be argued that Queens of the Stone Age were on a downward artistic slope after Songs For The Deaf (2002), Homme mixed things up and collaborated with Page’s former band mate John Paul Jones on 2009’s Them Crooked Vultures., then had some pretty good sized radio hits on …Like Clockwork (2013), and produced the Arctic Monkeys‘ AM that same year which had even bigger hits.
He may have more in common with Iggy Pop, who’s seventh album, if you count his first band The Stooges and the Kill City album, was New Values (1979) at the age of 32. Or since we didn’t count the Yardbirds and Kyuss, for Page and Homme, we could say it’s Blah Blah Blah (1986), when Iggy was 39. While that album may seem to be clearly post-peak Pop, it’s a lot more interesting in retrospect. Besides having a decent radio hit with “Real Wild Child (Wild One),” it was co-produced by his old pal David Bowie, (seventh album, 1974’s Diamond Dogs, age 27) included the Sex Pistols‘ Steve Jones in the band, and sported a fascinating metallic sheen that balanced between the worlds of AOR, pop and heavy metal. And “Cry For Love” and “Winners & Losers” were pretty awesome. Despite I’m sure many predictions for his early death, Pop kept trucking along, making more okay to good albums, reuniting with The Stooges for several awe-inspiring tours, then collaborating with one Josh Homme for the excellent Post Pop Depression (2016) at the age of 69.
As good as Homme’s collaboration with Jones and Pop were, Villains is some next level shit. So maybe Bowie is a more apt comparison? With Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars) producing, some may wonder if this would be his Let’s Dance (13th album, age 36). Not quite. While Villains is better (Let’s Dance sold a boatload, but Bowie was embarrassed by it, while Homme should not be), he’s not quite at Bowie’s level. And interestingly, Villains is far from the dance pop album some people were inexplicably imagining. Yes, there’s a little bit of of funk and groove, but it’s simply a subtle adjustment to the band’s signature “robot rock,” as Homme liked to call his music at the time of their first three albums. Six of the nine songs stretch out to between 5:20 and 6:40 long. There’s no obvious radio songs, though “The Way You Used To Do” is actually doing quite well as a single, and as catchy as any of the Queens’ more rocking songs. In a way, there’s similarities in feel to Lullabies To Paralize (2005), except with better arrangements, sound and songwriting. Despite the long song lengths, Villains holds my attention throughout, pulsing with changes and details that were absent from the band’s albums a decade ago. Also, Homme has become a better, more expressive singer.
On opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” Homme declares “I was born in the desert, Ma 17, in ’73.” Not shying away from showing his age, he knows he’s doing fucking great at 44, and also evokes fellow desert-dweller Captain Beefheart (seventh album Clear Spot in 1972, age 31), who made a similar introduction to his first album Safe As Milk (1967) on “Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do.” This must be a nod to the fact that “Clear Spot” and “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” are clear precursers to Queens’ arid desert robo-rock blues. Approved!
After an Aerosmith style guitar intro, “Domesticated Animals” features a staccato rhythm that hearkens back as far as “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret.” The difference in the new songs is that they have more swing, thanks to drummer Jon Theodore’s disciplined work that pays some tribute to ZZ Top (seventh album, El Loco in 1981, Billy Gibbons was 32). It would be nice if the drums popped more like say, on Tejas, but overall Ronson’s production ably balances the rock (the fast and loose “Head Like A Haunted House”) and the keyboards and special effects (“Fortress,” “Un-Reborn Again”) to keep it sounding fresh and modern.
To be honest, I sometimes wish Homme would revisit the fuzzed out stoner rock he pioneered with Kyuss and the first QOTSA album. But he is clearly against any sort of recycling and more interested in moving forward, which is totally understandable. It would be very difficult to revisit the past when that sound has been adopted by literally dozens of bands since. While shy with his own past sounds that forged bombed-out Black Flag + Black Sabbath guitar fuzz desert/stoner rock, he’s not afraid to go further back in history to engage in a musical dialog with heroes from Hendrix to Page, Iggy, Lemmy, and an evolving range of guitar tones, some of which that sound more like serrated aluminum, have more in common with Robert Fripp’s work in The League Of Gentlemen, new wave era King Crimson and Bowie’s Heroes, to which Villains holds up a black mirror.
The diverse album only truly digs into the band’s past with “The Evil Has Landed,” where the band puts together their favorite ingredients of riffs, choruses and a signature robo-rock vamp that’s a total blast. Album closer “Villains Of Circumstance” ends on another strong note, Homme revisiting the vulnerability of personal lyrics on “Fortress” and crooning with seeming heartfelt sincerity. Even if one does catch a wink or a sneer, this band known for both hedonism and humor can’t hide the fact that they also have soul.
The band has had too many great albums to easily say if this is their best. Complaints that …Like Clockwork was too dark are ridiculous. It’s a great record with stunning highlights, but Villains may be their most consistent, if not quite as riveting as the peak moments of Rated R (2000) and Songs For the Deaf (2002). Either way, a new rock album that feels like a major event is even more of a rarity now than it was 17 years ago. And for that I’m grateful for Homme and his Queens.