A little over a decade ago, Josh Homme – singer/guitarist/only consistent member of Queens of the Stone Age – broke out of the Palm Desert scene that birthed his first projects (including desert rock pioneers Kyuss and the ever-changing Desert Sessions) and into England with QOTSA’s second album, Rated R, which was picking up steam in critical circles. More albums and tours followed swiftly afterward, firmly establishing Homme as a prolific and tireless creative force. But then, in late 2011, it all stopped. Nothing was heard from Homme until this past March, when the band announced …Like Clockwork, QOTSA’s sixth, self-produced full-length. A departure from the acerbic, furious rock that made him one of rock’s biggest cult artists, …Like Clockwork is a different kind of Queens record. Fifteen years after his breakthrough, the man whose first big song was just a list of narcotics is opening up on record and letting his guard down for the first time, resulting in Homme’s – QOTSA or otherwise – strongest effort in some time. Named for a phrase used by the band to note the seemingly-scheduled chaos during the album’s recording sessions, …Like Clockwork is Homme’s most personal work to date; it’s a record that fearlessly dissects its creator while revealing his tuneful heaviness to be as intact as ever.
In the six years since QOTSA’s last album, 2007’s Era Vulgaris, Homme reshuffled QOTSA’s lineup (again), produced an Arctic Monkeys record, toured and recorded with Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones as Them Crooked Vultures, had his second child with wife Brody Dalle, toured behind a reissue of QOTSA’s self-titled debut, and, last but not least, died. During a fairly standard surgery on his knee in 2010, Homme experienced complications, died for a moment, and then spent four bed-ridden months recovering. The last event has clearly left the biggest impact on …Like Clockwork. Once rock’s undisputed champion of sardonic one-liners, Homme’s songwriting is atypically introspective on …Like Clockwork. Confronted by mortality and fatherhood, Homme spreads all of his fears out on the table, laying his anxieties about death (“Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, “Like Clockwork”), loneliness (“The Vampyre Of Time and Memory”, “I Sat By The Ocean”), and the future (“Kalopsia”) on the album. It wouldn’t be unusual for say, Justin Vernon, to go to this borderline-confessional level of songwriting, but Homme is a towering, 6’4″ guy who wrote A Song for the Dead. It’s a big jump from the riff-heavy, face-melting rock that Queens is known for, but Homme pulls a near-Matt Berninger lever of vulnerability off with ease, harnessing his fear to create tracks both ferocious and gorgeous. (Case in point, …Like Clockwork has not one, but two, piano-led ballads, and Homme slays them both.)
The other major event that shaped …Like Clockwork is the return of Dave Grohl – who played on the band’s 2002 masterpiece Songs For The Deaf – to the drummer’s stool, replacing Joey Castillo, who acrimoniously departed the band late last year. Grohl’s drumming on …Like Clockwork is easily one of the album’s highlights, not only because it’s great to hear one of music’s greatest drummers back behind the skins after slaying arenas at his day job, but also because his chemistry with Homme drives the album’s best moments. The dark funk of “If I Had A Tail”, tension-filled charge of “My God Is The Sun”, and crashing crescendos of “I Appear Missing” are all filled with the kind of musical rapport that can only come from two already-great players who have spent plenty of time sharpening that bond. (In fact, 2009’s Them Crooked Vultures is essentially an album where the two basically just showed off just how damn good they sound together.) It’s not just Grohl who elevates Homme’s songs though – Queens’ current lineup is stronger than ever, as is Homme’s usual who’s who list of guests. The band’s last two albums were primarily crafted by Homme, Castillo, and guitarist/keyboardist Troy Van Leeuwen, but Homme is now backed by Van Leewen, keyboardist/guitarist Dean Fertita, and bassist Michael Shuman, all of whom play distinct roles on …Like Clockwork. Homme’s guitar work is supplemented by a tasteful-yet-explosive rhythm section in Grohl and Shuman, while Fertita and Van Leeuwen’s textural playing sets the stage for Homme’s searing leads, which, along with the album’s concise, ten-track running time, creates a much more cohesive and focused listen than the last two albums. …Like Clockwork’s guest roster is just as impressive: Elton John, Trent Reznor, former QOTSA members Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri, Arctic Monkeys leader Alex Turner, UNKLE’s James Lavelle, and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears all make contributions here. Although only a handful of them can be heard on the first listen, their seamless inclusion only builds the case that …Like Clockwork is primarily a result of Homme’s unwavering vision. The album’s emotional centerpiece, the six-minute slow burn “I Appear Missing”, serves as a showcase for all of Homme’s talents. One of the best things Homme has put to tape in the last decade, “I Appear Missing” features lyrics that are bleak-yet-vivid (“A spitting image of me/except for the heart-shaped hole where the hope runs out), no fewer than three interlocking, multipart guitar breakdowns, and one of Homme’s best-ever vocal performances, naturally transforming his sharp falsetto – which he usually only breaks out when he wants to get down – into a mournful coda. The track is a summation of all of Homme’s strengths, and serves as …Like Clockwork’s mission statement: despite all of the chaos that accompanied the album’s recording sessions, “I Appear Missing” defiantly proclaims that Homme isn’t not going away any time soon. At least, not without a fight.
Although his collaborators Grohl, Reznor, and Lanegan are among Homme’s most celebrated contemporaries, he has more in common with another guitar-slinger who emerged in the early 2000s: Jack White. Like Homme, White was a one-man musical army until 2010, when the breakup of the White Stripes pushed him (briefly) out of the spotlight. When he returned last year with Blunderbuss, an album where White put himself under the microscope, providing the clearest glimpse into the mind of a musician who had long wrapped himself in self-created myths. On …Like Clockwork, Homme takes a similar route. Picking himself apart while simultaneously writing songs that play to his strengths, the frontman’s newfound vulnerability is what creates the album’s best moments. Not to slight the muscular Them Crooked Vultures or vastly-underrated Lullabies To Paralyze, but …Like Clockwork is the strongest release from Homme in some time, showing that even after emerging as one of his generation’s most unique guitarists twenty-odd years ago, he has plenty of gas left in his creative tank as he continues his endless drive out of the Palm Desert.