Rediscovering: Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork

It’s been a grueling three months. Isolated in a bed on one side of a larger-than-necessary sterile hospital suite, the badger boy only stirs briefly every time the moonlight comes. His pen’s been down since the year reigned in. A stereo left untouched for about as long. Poking him about it results in a mumbled “yeah, at some point” and a roll over. Things look bleak for the long-neglected Rediscovering pile.

This night, the night where the moon lays directly overhead, casting spidery shadows under still-bare tree branches and ground brush, brings a visitor in through the window. A visitor with skin long peeled off, bones clean, inhumanly tall, shrouded in a form-concealing black cloak–a visitor you could only hope doesn’t actually exist.

The badger boy shoots up, eyes wide and adjusting to the sight of the ghoul. The visitor angles his head, jaw opening with a frightening creak. Whatever he said was never heard; whipping winds outside drowned out his message. He leaves as quickly as he comes, again through the tall, open window in the suite.

When all settles and the wind returns to calm, the badger boy looks over to notice a plastic box left on the ground in his wake. Carefully, he emerges from bedrest, bending over to pick it up. Regardless of if the visitor’s message came through, he knows well enough what he came for when he makes out the text through the red on the front.

Queens of the Stone Age's Like Clockwork

My previous experience, if any

Queens of the Stone Age is one of those bands I’ve known about for forever, who I like a lot, but whose discography I’ve been rather piecemeal about. Hell, one of the first CDs I ever owned was the eternally-underrated Era Vulgaris. They strike the perfect balance between friendly enough to rock radio and utterly twisted enough to latch onto your ears, with their nasty, rhythmic guitar parts and surprisingly frequent references to erotic cannibalism. I gained my copy of …Like Clockwork somewhere down the road, and despite loving the singles from it, I was almost hesitant to try the full thing for whatever reason. Guess it’s just been sitting that long.

The history lesson

After a string of side projects around 2010 all with names featuring birds, by drugs or by knee surgery, the Queen himself, Josh Homme, died. At least for a little bit. The resulting four months of being stuck in a hospital bed sank the man into an existential depression (and who can blame him?). With his bandmates clambering to make a new record, Homme pulled through and pulled out of the experience the set of ten songs that’d make it onto …Like Clockwork.

Well?

Two things stick out to me about …Like Clockwork–it’s at once both their most cinematic, even poppiest record (at least before Villains), and at times one of their most atonal. The opener in “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” does a pretty good job of letting you know it’s not gonna be a happy ride, with its detuned, repetitive, gnarled tendril riffs and low vocals, but it accomplishing its goal is second to the fact that it doesn’t go much of anywhere. It’s a fluke. Keep listening. This one takes a few tries.

On the cinematic front, going from the tragic villain backstory (complete with piano!) of “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” to the bouncy, eerie, spiteful, nocturnal “If I Had a Tail” is an absolute pleasure, especially as the latter track drops out to those absolutely chilling coda harmonies all around your head. These songs all build to towering highs, nowhere better exemplified than on “My God is the Sun”, which goes from a sun-scorched fuzz bass groove to a soaring flock of vulture guitars in the span of just under four minutes. Dynamics were never QOTSA’s calling card, but “Kalopsia” breaks your neck with them.

The devil really is in the details here. Blink and you’ll miss cameos from everyone from former bassist Nick Oliveri to head Arctic Monkey Alex Turner to Trent Reznor and His 23cm Fasteners to goddamn Elton John…somehow? (I did miss that one, it must be said, but he’s on “Fairweather Friends”, and I like that track a lot, so all is forgiven.) Lyrically, Josh Homme’s near-death experience informs a whole ton of this record. Not much of QOTSA’s output prior was concerned about worlds except their own, but when “Vampyre” starts with “I want God to come and take me home”, you know you’re not dealing with the average Queens song.

Yet, even as Homme aims high, even as he invites his friends to pile on the vocal contributions, it never really feels pretentious or conceptual. It’s a straight ahead modern rock record, just one with lots of layers. Even a less adventurous track like “I Sat By the Ocean” fits fine alongside the sprawl of “I Appear Missing”, for their hearts beat quite the same.

And that’s what makes it unique in QOTSA’s catalog. Every one of their other records (minus Era Vulgaris, perhaps) feels like a grand adventure, a drive through a much different desert each time. Lullabies to Paralyze turned the amps down slightly and turned up the reverb, turning breakup ballads into cavernous tales of the Big Bad Wolf. Songs for the Deaf was a literal radio rock record, complete with saucy, shitty Mexican DJs between songs. Rated R was a deep exploration into drug culture, both highly personal and on a more cultural level.

…Like Clockwork hones its sound, focused but never shiny, only really growing languid at the start and the finish, and…ends up feeling a lot shorter than 47 minutes for it. On that level, it’s probably the perfect introduction into the band’s catalog, and just a damn fine collection of songs for everyone else. On the flipside, it’s not really my favorite of their records–I’ll stick with getting lost in Lullabies for that–but that’s also not the standard I hold the Rediscovering albums to.

Are you keeping it?

At least for now, it stays in the collection.

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