Josh Homme has always enjoyed tweaking the nose of genre and gender. It’s why he called his band Queens Of The Stone Age, a theatrical attempt to subvert the macho tendencies of the hard-rock world. His latest wheeze is to ask pop heavyweight Mark Ronson to produce Villains, QOTSA’s seventh album. It’s similar to the mad logic that resulted in Elton John (“The only thing missing from your band is an actual queen,” he told Homme) appearing on …Like Clockwork, but the results are far more enjoyable. Villains is all swinging dance-rock and atmospheric vulnerability, with Ronson locking a serious groove to the Queens’ Grimm Brothers gothic architecture. For much of the propulsive first half of the album, QOTSA find a surprisingly welcome balance between Black Sabbath and disco.
Of course, the Queens have always known how to swing. Even in their rockiest era there was the swagger of Rated R’s “Monsters In The Parasol” and the robot-rock groove of “No One Knows”, with Homme gradually increasing that aspect of his band’s sound through fluctuating lineups and a growing fondness for synths. With Dean Fertita joining Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen around the time of Era Vulgaris, QOTSA gave us “Battery Acid” and “Turning On The Screw”, while 2013’s otherwise gloomy …Like Clockwork featured a couple of Homme’s danciest numbers yet, a pair of Bowie-indebted glam-funk floormashers in the shape of “Smooth Sailing” and the deliciously pervy “If I Had A Tail”.
Homme is a showman, and with Ronson that’s been dialled up to the max. “I like to dance, man,” he said to explain Ronson’s presence – the pair met while working on Lady Gaga’s sweaty “John Wayne” – and to Homme’s usual lyrical fascinations of sex, drugs and death you can now add dancing itself. It forms the theme of party-hard opening track “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”, all glammy flange and pumping disco bass, and more obliquely on the spacey “Domesticated Animals”, a sly stomper that sees Homme singing, “Get right up, sit back down, the revolution is one spin round.” Sex is everywhere – “all dressed up, no-one left to blow”, he winks from behind a feather boa on the Roxy-like “Hideaway”, while the electro-funk “The Way You Used To Do”, an ode to youthful exertions, is loucheness exemplified.
While …Like Clockwork sometimes felt a little leaden, Villains flies by. That might be because this is very much a band record – that’s Homme, Van Leeuwen and Fertita with Michael Shuman on bass and Jon Theodore on drums – with no guest appearances to dilute the experience. In fact, this is the first QOTSA album since the debut that doesn’t feature any of Mark Lanegan, Dave Grohl or Nick Oliveri. This version of the band is exceptionally versatile – the only time they stay within their comfort zone is on “The Evil Is Landed”, a song that could feature on almost any album the band has recorded.
Ronson is the only collaborator, and he emphasises Homme’s more flamboyant tendencies while embellishing the sonic palate. He’s there on the synthetic handclaps of lead single “The Way We Used To Do” and the English accent affected by Homme on “Domesticated Animals”, but most notably through a shared fondness for disco, glam, bass and Bowie. Key track is the sleazy, slinky “Un-Reborn Again”, which uncoils a chorus that leans on “Heroes” but pinches its central conceit from “Telegram Sam” while always remaining true to the QOTSA vision. Homme’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics play against a backdrop of synth that slashes, crawls and basks, while Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen smear guitar everywhere like glitter and sand. It’s quite a ride.
Among the theatre sit two more vulnerable moments, when Homme allows the darkness to hit the foreground. “Fortress”, with droning intro weaved from Moorish rhythms, bridges back to …Like Clockwork’s downbeat mood but also takes on some of the grungier elements of old. It requires those QOTSA rarities – delicacy and subtlety – with Homme making an abrupt shift from smirk to sincerity. It’s a love song, with Homme offering support – “If ever your fortress caves, you’re always safe in mine”, he croons. Almost in apology, it’s followed by a polar opposite, the skronky punk of “Head Like A Haunted House”, a song that’s been sitting round since Era Vulgaris, which sees QOTSA do a great imitation of Weezer and Supergrass via the Oh Sees. The album’s final song, “Villains Of Circumstance” is cut from similar cloth as “Fortress”. It begins with a tunnel of acoustic gloom cutting through the ambient sounds, before opening into a pop-rock anthem. Homme has put aside his dancing shoes to pledge undying love, but even here – in the extravagance of the lyric and the showtune sensibility – he’s very much onstage, pursuing rock theatre with a wink and a leer.
The October 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Jack White on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Van Morrison, The National, The Dream Syndicate, Steve Winwood, Tony Visconti, The The, The Doors and Sparks. We review LCD Soundsystem, The Style Council, Chris Hillman, Hiss Golden Messenger and Frank Zappa. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Lee Renaldo, Mogwai, Wand, Chris Hillman, The Dream Syndicate, Hiss Golden Messenger and more.