Truth be told, Josh Homme has it all. He’s reached the top of the rock A-list without ever appearing to have struggled for a hit single, nor was he pressured to. He’s now in that Valhalla where the longer he waits to release an album, the higher it charts — 2013’s six-year-hiatus-breaking …Like Clockwork reached the top of the Billboard 200 Albums chart. He’s got Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones on call when the mood strikes. And now he’s got the nerve to do an even bigger flex, fronting the first hard rock band to have a whole album produced by “Uptown Funk” and Amy Winehouse impresario Mark Ronson … and releasing this major-label dream team-up on indie powerhouse Matador, the same label he gave that No. 1 record to. Homme loves to subvert, but only in such low-key ways that they’d never upset the mainstream. He doesn’t engage with the mainstream. It occasionally dances with him, though, as Grohl or Ronson would attest. And he’s made it clear that the new Villains, whose four-year interim joins …Like Clockwork’s for a decade of vacation, is all about dancing.
The impressive thing is that living the good life has been good for Homme. Villains is pretty easily his best album since 2002’s rock-pantheon coronation Songs for the Deaf, in part because he’s finally figured out how to make a consistently engaging and inventive record without the revolving door of alter egos that the sexily morose Mark Lanegan and gleefully enraged Nick Oliveri shuffled in between his many stoned moans. And it’s arguably his hookiest album since his 2000 masterpiece Rated R, simplifying the sensually stiff grooves Homme made his name on into dumb nuggets of perfection like “Domesticated Animals”, which may be the best three-note stomp since Pearl Jam’s “Not for You”.
The first thing you notice is the tempo, which is up. As advertised, this is dance music, like every other relevant alt-related band has been trying to cross over into for most of this decade. Except unlike, say, Paramore’s After Laughter, Queens didn’t tack on synths or nostalgia or electronics. They just adapted their repetitions into something more uptempo; the amazing, maniacal pogo of opener “Feet Don’t Fail Me” resembles nothing so much as Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot”, funky hard rock that doesn’t deviate from B to become A. It’s followed by first single “The Way You Used to Do”, which swings like it’s in a batting cage; it sounds like ZZ Top covering “Hot for Teacher”, which is exactly as awesome as it sounds.
It matters because this is a band who’s been branding themselves as awesome music for awesome people for quite some time, and yet from Lullabies to Paralyze to Era Vulgaris to the surprise hit …Like Clockwork, they honestly became quite self-indulgent downers. Those aren’t bad records, but they certainly wouldn’t be notable ones if this was a band who hadn’t already delivered some of the funniest, most creative, and entrancing hard rock of the last 20 years. Villains is a good record, and the second reason why is Mark Ronson.
Rock production in 2017 is sort of a foregone fairy tale, as neither rock nor production are really at their peak in the Weeknd-slowed, Lana-sedated era. Not just because popular music is so slow now but because it’s also so static, minimal, reliant on personalities more than arrangements. A talented downer like Vince Staples noticed this and tried to liven it up with weirdo club music inspired by Gorillaz. Drake sought refuge in Afrobeats and Carribean dance music after VIEWS turned out to be an all-time void. Everyone’s trying to find their way back to the fun. And yet all it took for a bunch of stoned blowouts was the guy behind “Rehab” to put some spring in their plodding step.
Ronson amplifies every individual element of Queens’ attack, with bass like a whale, guitars zipping around like synths, counterpoint elements like the Kraftwerk-style strings on the lead track given their own space in the audio field to breathe. And dry-ass drums kicking you in the head like it’s their job. Villains far exceeds expectations of the best-case scenario for a Queens of the Stone Age album or a mainstream rock album in 2017, though after the opening trifecta it quickly settles into itself and becomes a normal-good record instead of a great one. Ronson should absolutely start producing more bands.
The tempos slow down again, though the songs remain the shrewdest and most distinct that Homme’s put forth in some time. Still, it could use more surprises; after the initial burst, you have to go all the way to the penultimate buzzer, “The Evil Has Landed”, for a hypnotizing riff and finale “Villains of Circumstance” for an addictive melody, this time nicked from Tears for Fears’ indelible “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. If nothing else, Villains portends even greater things for a band who was really looking disinterested in ever challenging themselves again, and with their ever-solid rep, no real need to. For an outfit who’s claimed groove-rock for two decades, it’s a relief to hear what they sound like with a beat you can dance to. Now let’s see them keep it going.
Essential Tracks: “Feet Don’t Fail Me”, “The Evil Has Landed”, and “The Way You Used to Do”