To knick a phrase the NME misused with Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age is sort of a Guns N’ Roses it’s ok to like. Indie fetishists have a soft spot for Josh Homme’s muscular, psychedelic metal riffage, but so do crass Papa Roach fans. It’s a difficult line to straddle, where the wrong move could send you reeling into the Ozzfest crowd forever. Part of the band’s charm has always been its indifference to image, although, Homme does his damndest to deconstruct QOTSA’s persona any chance he gets.
With the sacking of bassist Nick Oliveri, after the breakthrough Songs for the Deaf, Homme trudged forward as though his bandmate’s departure had meant nothing, when in point of fact, everything changed. The music on the follow-up Lullabies to Paralyze didn’t implode exactly, but the carefree nonchalance and reckless abandon were utterly lacking. It was a claustrophobic record- darkly insular and peripherally indulgent. Homme did prove that, yes, he probably had a bigger hand in directing the music over the years, but Oliveri’s aura of danger left a gaping void in the proceedings.
On Era Vulgaris, Homme makes a hard left turn away from the dark psychedelia of Lullabies, trying on some glam riffs for size. Perhaps, in an effort to resurrect the sense that QOTSA is a band full of rock and roll sleaze, Era Vulgaris portrays a bunch of misfit overgrown class clowns, who wouldn’t think twice about inviting a couple hookers over to watch Tom & Jerry reruns before busting out the coke and getting down to business. It would work, too, if only the songs held up their end.
Homme’s voice is a bit too studied, too choir boy for metal, so he fucks with it to achieve different sounds to suit certain moods, not to mention inviting guests like Mark Lanegan and Julian Casablancas to break up the monotony. Detached wise guy seems to be the persona du jour. Homme spits out one-liners intended to scald or at least passive aggressively take the piss, but his phrasing is too clunky to get the job done very well. The sarcasm inherent to a song like “I’m Designer”, which ostensibly berates greedy musicians, fails to pack any punch because, well, Homme seems content to tussle with clichÃ©s. It’d be one thing if he bookended the clichÃ©s with some dry wit, but it all comes off forcibly awkward.
The overwhelming sense of melody and the ease with which Songs for the Deaf flowed proved that Homme and Oliveri knew how to write catchy rock songs all the live long day, but Homme now seems hesitant to embrace his pop craftsmanship. Instead, he deconstructs songs to an almost non-musical point. Parts sound clunky and incomplete and transitions are unwieldy. And with the exception of the obvious singles (“Sick Sick Sick and “3′ and 7’s”), Era Vulgaris is a difficult record to get into, despite the amusingly absurd, rapscallion-esque cartoon artwork.
That is not to say there aren’t plenty of rock-solid riffs. Homme has one of the best guitar tones in the business. It’s instantly recognizable, and his skill unquestioned. But the riffs don’t have much to prop up in terms of melody or structure. Era Vulgaris tries to be a fun, don’t-give-a-fuck rock record but comes off like a bad experiment. Strangely, I keep returning to it, but I think it’s more out of confusion than interest.