It’s been a turbulent six years since the last Queens of the Stone Age album. The difficult birth of “… Like Clockwork” (Matador), which included several stops and starts and at least one major personnel change with the departure of drummer Joey Castillo, creates an instant subtext for lyrics brimming with images of struggle, betrayal and burn-out -- “Fire from above,” as Josh Homme sings.
But the turmoil had its benefits. “… Like Clockwork” (Matador) is the best and most focused Queens album since “Songs for the Deaf” in 2002. The drummer (Dave Grohl) and bassist (Nick Oliveri) on that album are back in part-time roles, and they help anchor what is one of the more consistent batch of songs Homme has authored. The key is not just the band’s ability to paralyze with power or to space out with stoner-rock psychedelia, but its willingness to infuse its melodies with vulnerability and a disquieting fragility.
Homme has always folded sensuality inside his massive guitar tone, a rare combination of grace and gut-punch power in the hard-rock field. In that sense, the sixth Queens of the Stone Age studio album is less a breakthrough then a consolidation of strengths, with a premium placed on songcraft. “Kalopsia” toggles between contemplation and crunch, a bodacious bass underpins an unhurried vocal and sparse piano on “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” progressive-rock dynamics fire up “Fairweather Friends.”
Queens can be weird to an extreme, an impulse that peaked on the prickly “Era Vulgaris” (2007). But “… Like Clockwork” is more determinedly about songs, even if there are a few dead spots (the relatively static “If I Had a Tail,” the lurching “Smooth Sailing”). Riffs rule on “I Sat by the Ocean” and the staggering “My God is the Sun,” instant flashbacks to the best of early Queens, if not the crushing hedonism of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer.” But Homme also takes more chances with his vocals, using his pliable voice not just as an instrument that teases and distorts, but that expresses deeper misgivings. The swagger is very much there – particularly in Michael Shuman’s huge bass lines – but Homme also lays bare his uneasiness. In “I Appear Missing,” the guitar harmonics echo his desolation, and the title track, sung in falsetto, invests it with soul. Even as the song shuts the door on the album, it opens a new one for Homme as an artist.