Queens Of The Stone Age Cheers Up (Sort Of) On The Stirring ‘Villains’

For a long time, Josh Homme sought the company of dangerous men. Nick Oliveri, Mark Lanegan, Jesse Hughes — these are larger-than-life characters, the kind of lethal S.O.B.s who always seem to be holding a lit cigarette in the vicinity of a pool of gasoline. For Homme, whose laconic cool in the late ’90s and early ’00s was unflappable no matter the circumstances, surrounding himself with loose cannons gave his band, Queens Of The Stone Age, an irresistible hot/cold dynamic. Whatever craziness, musical or otherwise, occurred around him on QOTSA’s first three albums, Homme was always the calm at the eye of the storm, like a honey-voiced play-by-play announcer dispassionately relating the events of a prison riot.

But over time, as Queens Of The Stone Age evolved from a collective into a conventional band, Homme’s inherent coolness has overwhelmed any and all corruptive influences. The unpredictable hazards of early QOTSA have given way to a crafty steadiness on the more recent records. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock that Homme enlisted Mark Ronson to produce the seventh Queens album, Villains. For the knuckle-draggiest parts of QOTSA’s fanbase, Ronson represents corruption of the less awesome kind — pop castration of a mighty rock and roll beast. But Ronson and Homme are more alike than they might appear.

Ronson, like Homme, is a record-head who is exceedingly good at synthesizing influences from throughout modern music history into a sound that feels modern, even when it scans as retro. Ronson’s signature hit with Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” is an impeccable piece of studio-bound professionalism presented in the guise of a carefree party, and that’s basically Queens Of The Stone Age in a nutshell. As Homme recently told Rolling Stone, “We’re more like an arcade or an ice-cream parlor where you don’t talk politics. There needs to be escape.”

Homme has pitched Ronson’s involvement in Villains as a risky shakeup designed to prevent his band from becoming “a parody of itself.” Interestingly, Homme now sees himself as the bad influence. “I think oftentimes I bring the gift of disruption and corruption,” he insisted when The New York Times asked about Ronson.I think it’s fun to pervert that buttoned-up type, as an offering and as a friend.”

But aside from some punched-up rhythms on the excellent disco-metal opener, “Feet Don’t Feel Me,” and the layer of swaggering gloss applied to the glammy T. Rex homage “Un-Reborn Again,” Villains sounds more or less like another very good Queens record. Homme remains a leather-jacketed greaser whose music melds Sun-era Elvis crooning with heavy-riffing Berlin-era Iggy soundscapes. Ronson’s influence is negligible — or maybe it’s just redundant. Homme might brag about having an “addiction to friction” on the slinky album highlight “Hideaway,” but Villains is about as smooth and problem-free as QOTSA albums get.

I do not mean this strictly as a criticism. After all, if somebody is going to make Queens Of The Stone Age albums in 2017, I’m glad it’s still Homme. Other groups have tried to bite Queens’ aesthetic over the years with varying degrees of success, from peers like Foo Fighters and Arctic Monkeys to progeny such as Royal Blood and Torche. But no one can touch Homme’s ability to embody seemingly contradictory ideas about traditional masculinity and subversive anti-masculinity simultaneously — just try to imagine another macho rock guy convincingly pulling off a Cab Calloway-inspired music video in 2017.

Nearly 20 years after the kinky deconstructions of hesher rock that distinguished its self-titled 1998 debut, QOTSA remains an utterly unique institution in contemporary music, a smart and contrarian hard-rock behemoth. And while I don’t expect QOTSA to ever reach the heights of 2000’s Rated R and 2002’s Songs For The Deaf, I also can’t think of another modern band capable of making an album remotely like Villains

No one is more grateful that Queens Of The Stone Age has stuck around than Homme, who of late has let his aloof facade slip a bit, revealing a chastened middle-aged husband and father underneath. While the generally propulsive Villains departs musically from 2013’s downbeat and surprisingly ballad-oriented …Like Clockwork, made shortly after a life-threatening health scare almost sidelined Homme permanently, the new album retains its predecessor’s battle-scarred lust for life.

But whereas …Like Clockwork is pensive, Villains affects a veneer of bravado that nonetheless feels wounded and vulnerable. “Going on a living spree,” Homme declares on “The Evil Has Landed” over the album’s most Zeppelin-esque guitar riff. “You don’t wanna miss your chance / Near-life experience.” On the next track, “Villains Of Circumstance,” Homme revisits the self-doubt of … Like Clockwork: “Life goes on / That’s what scares me so.”

There is plenty of fun and games, too, on Villains — the amped-up acid-rock swing of “The Way You Used To Do,” the mile-a-minute Cramps-style rave-ups of “Head Like A Haunted House,” the sneering robo-funk of “Domesticated Animals,” which appears to take a snotty swipe at political protestors. But no matter his aspirations to pure escapism, Homme can no longer pretend that he’s impervious to life’s tragedies.

On Villains‘ best track, “Fortress,” Homme peers again into his own personal abyss. A spacey, synth-accented ballad featuring the album’s most chillingly pretty vocal performance, “Fortress” is about the futility of keeping your fears and demons locked up inside. “I tell you the awful truth / Everyone faces darkness on their own / As I have done, so will you.” Hearing Homme, rock’s reigning man’s man, sing so openly about personal weakness is bracing. After all this time, instead of drawing on the darkness of others, Homme has found it inside of his own heart.

Villains is out today via Matador Records. Get it here.