The minor miracle of the last Queens of the Stone Age record was the way it opened up dramatic new possibilities for metal and so-called “stoner-rock” without exactly belonging to either genre: It was too sonically varied to qualify as a zone-out record, and not dark or loud enough for Ozzfest. Rated R was in fact something of a hard-rock Stankonia—a masterwork that augmented its schizophrenic thrash with acid-washed riffs and taut grooves, tossing in a choir, a brass section, genius minor-key melodies, and lyrics both meditative and supremely wacked-out. Singer-guitarist Josh Homme’s tuneful glimpses into the mind of a freaked-out, pissed-off, alienated, and sometimes sedated young man reached out to unsettled suburban yoofs in the same way as Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” or Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” might have a couple decades back, only it was more sly and oblique. In both its trippy-ness and grand ambition, it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite headlines from The Onion: “Stoner Architect Drafts All-Foyer Mansion.”
Call Josh Homme a stoner architect. If Rated R was his fun house—a place to try out every idea floating around his head—Songs for the Deaf is his all-foyer mansion: a sprawling album with a spacious sound and a far-out (not to say dumb) concept. The record kicks off à la Dark Side of the Moon: a minute and a half of blips and glitches over a subdued heartbeat, interrupted by the sound of someone starting a car and fiddling with the radio. A voice breaks in: “K-L-O-N, Los Angeles. Klone Radio: We play the songs that sound more like anyone else than anyone else.” Only apparently the Queens make inroads at KLON: Over the course of a half-dozen of these radio intros, the announcers sound less like corporate tools and more like obscure indie jocks. On the album’s last voice-over, a DJ addresses not L.A. but the northern Cali desert, a locale as integral to the Queens’ sound as Atlanta is to OutKast: meat-and-potatoes riffs wither in the heat and turn psychedelic; the singer sounds like he’s wandering the sandy cliffs all alone. Way out in the desert, miles from civilization, you may indeed hear “songs for the deaf,” which in this case apparently means the Queens’ own songs, or at least those that transmit states of mind—frazzled, confused, tired, yet strangely pensive—to which pop radio is indeed deaf.
Or something. Whether a novelty or genuine thematic connector (only the band knows for sure, though fans will doubtless debate the issue between bong hits), the recurring radio snippets are at least well integrated into Songs for the Deaf‘s surprisingly consistent sound. The jangly boom-chick rhythms of “No One Knows” and the adrenalized bounce of “Do It Again” sidestep straightforward hard-rock thrash, but most of the songs shuffle between in-your-face oompah and droney, downtempo float; for every angst-ridden number like “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Doll,” there’s pot smoke wafting nearby. As on the last album, memorable melodies are scarce, and the hooks are by and large rhythmic. Even on the most propulsive numbers, Queens’ rhythm section—which here includes Dave Grohl on drums—syncopates almost as well as Timbaland, giving Homme (along with Dean Ween and Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan, who handle some of the lead vocals) a shifting bed over which to contribute shrieks and laid-back whiteboy muttering.
I miss Rated R‘s subtle playfulness, the way Homme’s bullshit philosophizing gave way to absurdist lyrics about monsters in parasols and little girls who “can never freeze.” Homme’s golf shirts and accountant’s haircut are often cited as evidence of his very real distance from both Ozzfest bands and his stoner rock roots. The distance was largely a matter of sonics, but it was also an ironic detachment: the “nicotine-valium-vicodin-marijuana-ecstasy-alcohol” lyric of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” from Rated R, for instance, came off like a parody of what outsiders might’ve guessed fueled the band’s music (or the band’s fans). Despite plenty of first-person references signifying confusion or romantic discontent on Songs for the Deaf, Homme mostly plays angry adolescent or stoned shaman, ranting about his boredom and listlessness and dropping half sequiturs like “The sky is falling/Human race that we run/It left me crawling/Staring straight at the sun.”
I also miss Rated R‘s ambitiousness, the way it wasn’t afraid to lay down a funk groove or go soft for a minute in the interest of diversity. But I’ll settle for the Queens’ new streamlined attack; it ain’t mind-blowing, it just rocks. The band still can’t be pegged as metal or stoner rock, and they’re still one of a kind when it comes to their brand of adolescent-baiting. Not that they’re proclaiming themselves spokesmen for young suburban Americans; that’s Eminem’s racket. It’s just that you’d have trouble naming a band dispensing big, popular hard rock that can connect with kids without resorting to the rote confessional angst of the Creed-Korn-Staind set. So forget about the radio snippets and silly album title. Their sound is conceptual mind-fuck enough.