Queens Of The Stone Age
t’s an error in judgment to view Queens Of The Stone Age from a purely superficial perspective. There is a level of conceptual rigor far greater than most attribute to them, and that speaks as much to lazy criticism as it does to Josh Homme’s songwriting. The Queens’ frontman and mastermind swoons over irony, blissfully in love with screwing with his audience. His singing smears his lyrics over one another, burying them in indecipherable crooning and barricading them with gigantic guitars, which in turn dissuades his listeners from bothering to take the time out to read his lyric sheets.
This was precisely why most critics missed the boat on Lullabies to Paralyze. Because it followed the departure of Nick Oliveri, it was easy to focus on how the album’s sound changed. What was virtually ignored was how fascinating a sonic diversion it was. A nefarious, downright EVIL rock record, the songs on Lullabies touched on subjects and themes that past Queens records only hinted at: murder, witches, blood, wolves, insanity, suicide, torture. The glossy production was a mere feint: a distraction from its sinister intent.
Era Vulgaris is an album similarly infused with the irony and aural carnage of Lullabies, but in the completely opposite direction. Rather than polish the sludge, Homme cakes shiny, glammed-up, testosterone-packed pop songs in studio-crafted dirt. Guitars are fractured and smudged, drums are beaten and clobbered, and the resulting sound is stuffed into a beaten-up suitcase, opened up, and the filthiest, sloppiest sound the Queens have yet created emerges out of the murk. That doesn’t make Era Vulgaris sound punkier or less pop-oriented than past albums, mind you. It makes the hooks of Homme’s vocal melodies that much more distinct—allowing glam trash and garage sludge to coexist in a strange, muddled, yet undeniably catchy end product. Arriving at that conclusion is not easy, because tracks like the grinding “Misfit Love” and the disjointed “I’m Designer” demand concentrated listening in order for their melodies to be fully absorbed. Yet by the time the grime is sifted through and the songs have sunk in, what remains is their simplicity, typically only a few chords repeated incessantly in short, punchy outbursts.
On the lawnmower stomp of opener “Turning on the Screw,” Homme accuses scenesters (“Scared to say what is your passion / So slag it all / Bitter’s in fashion”) and then admits his alienation from them (“The world is round / My square don’t fit at all”), describing himself and everyone else when he repeats, “I’m so wired, and I’m tired too.” First single “Sick, Sick, Sick” details viperous lotharios getting their kicks out of kinky girls, while next track “I’m Designer” sarcastically proclaims, “My generation’s for sale / Beats a steady job,” as embodied by a chorus that keeps chanting “It’s truly a lie / I counterfeit myself.”
After the sensual burn of “Into the Hollow,” the tone of the remainder of Era Vulgaris, in both sound and lyrical content, becomes increasingly vitriolic. The chugging pseudo-industrial grind of “Battery Acid” describes “ROBOTS ROBOTS / Brainwashed babies, blood from a leech,” while “River in the Road” turns L.A. into an apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare, where “Fast approaching monsters, marching in a row / Grab what slips your mind and what your memory won’t hold.”
Era Vulgaris is a startlingly violent takedown of Hollywood; a portrait of a culture of shallow egotism and Nero-ruled Romanesque debauchery. But unlike the thematic undercurrent of Lullabies which was more subtle in its detailing of the sensual in the horrific, Homme’s preoccupations are obvious, and thus less interesting. He’s never been the most gifted of lyricists, so the fact that he’s retreated from vagueness is a problem, and the plodding, hardly libidinous “Make It Wit Chu” sharply disrupts the album’s primal, toxic flow.
Still, Era Vulgaris gets better with each listen, and that’s mostly due to the fact that the melodies take time to sink in. The album’s standout, “3’s & 7’s,” for instance, is a rousing, sweaty rock anthem on par with “Go With the Flow” or “Little Sister,” though it hardly has the same immediacy. The song, a tale of spousal ambivalence similar to “Flow” weds lyrics to music that matches it, a common device used on Era Vulgaris. Instead of making what’s pretty on the surface ugly underneath, Homme pulls the old switcheroo, implying that what most people see is actually the complete opposite—from his perspective at least.