Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"There's Nothing You Can Say, You Can't Wish Me Away:" Something About Like Clockwork

For a few weeks now, I've wanted to write something about Like Clockwork, the Queens of the Stone Age's long-awaited sixth album. Despite minor reservations, I can't stop listening to it. But when I tried to write something about Like Clockwork, it sucked. It was four or five grafs of throat-clearing, "Your shoes are untied," cack. It was heavily annotated, and full of quotes from other critics. I ultimately scrapped that piece simply because I am not a music critic. The closest I've come to writing a music review is this. Not a terrible piece, really, but I think it's terrible, if that makes sense.

Which leads me to this piece. It's not a review, because who wants a review for an album that came out weeks ago? And it's not supposed to be a deeply personal cri di coeur, though it will be that. Rather, I want to relate what it's like to listen to Like Clockwork's three-hit punch of "If I Had a Tail," "My God is the Sun," and "Kalopsia." So I'll circle around something I can't bring myself to directly write about. Like the persona that Queens frontman Josh Homme presents in his music, I'm an emotional exhibitionist. I also don't like being completely transparent. In his music, Homme presents himself as a sarcastic bully, a submissive pervert, and an egocentric depressive. I like his music a lot.

Like Clockwork doesn't begin with "If I Had a Tail," but it should. My biggest problem with the album is that Homme bleeds all over the tracks. This guy has made of a career of jamming tongue into cheek. He sings about suicidal thoughts, bad trips, and strip club daymares so well that he doesn't need to make his music more overtly "personal." But still, Homme knew what he was doing when he wrote the music for Like Clockwork. On Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque piano ballad "Vampyre of Time and Memory," Homme sings, "To be vulnerable is needed most of all, if you intend to truly fall apart." By contrast, "If I Had a Tail" is a chilly, synth-heavy track with an echo chamber disco beat. It, like many of Homme's best tracks, makes you think you're riding shotgun in Homme's car while he makes donuts all over his id. "See me dance," he moans like a ghost, confirming in "If I Had a Tail," we are inside Homme's head. Maybe this is what you dream of when you're laid up in a hospital, wondering if you have the stamina to recover. It isn't a wake-up call, but a nose-dive into Nod, the land of cold sweats, and bad dreams.

The lyrics of "If I Had a Tail" are a slick-sounding jumble. This is probably why Homme's song never attain the status of James Murphy's "Losing My Edge," though they're both great tracks about the singer's encroaching fear of irrelevance. Homme warbles, "I'm machine, I'm obsolete in the land of the free, lobotomy." He's not sneering at the same decibel level of, "I'm Designer," Era Vulgaris's klaxon-loud anti-consumer screed, nor is he cooing as petulantly as he did on, "Burn the Witch," Lullabies to Paralyze's anti-press machine jeer. Instead, Homme's resigned to his fate. When he cross-references Patti Labelle with the Crystals in a lyric like, "Gitchy-gitchy, ooh la la, a doo run run, you won't get far," Homme's trying to reassure you, the listener, and only you. It's like he's winking from behind cheap plastic sunglasses: 'We're good, man, numb, set. Let's ride.'

But as Homme drives, he tells you what you're putting in your rear-view. "It's how you look, not how you feel, a city of glass with no heart..." Then, like the bored, floating head of Oz, the Great and Powerful, Homme dispassionately booms: "If I had a tail, I'd own the night." Since this is a dream, the line makes sense, if only as a feverish mantra. 'Yeah, yeah, a tail, if only I had one of those...' The song then picks up, and Homme goes a little faster. Infrequently, you hear a half-whoosh, half-hiss that takes you to Homme's spooky refrain. It sounds like you've rocketed into a tunnel just as a dry ice machine turns all the way on.  And every time Homme begs you to, "See me dance," it sounds like he's getting farther away. Have we always been moving this fast?

When synthesizers eventually bring you up for air, it sounds like you're going over a cliff. Homme's car doesn't make a sound upon impact. Instead, a few seconds of silence, then Homme's voice comes back wraith-like. "When I have a tail, I will control the night," he laments. You're starting to wake up. You're now in that weird liminal state where you're at your most lucid, and drowsy. Homme's voice gets a little more distant each time he repeats himself. Then his voice is lapped by a demonic refugee from Joe Dante's Gremlins. "When we have a tail, we will control the night." This thing rasps like a Bukowski avatar, and comically rolls its consonants like a cheap cigarillo. And as it repeats itself, the creature also seems to get closer. "We will....controoooooool...." But before it can sneer, "Thuhhh noiiiiiitttteee," the night is over, and the sun has risen.

"My God is the Sun" shakes you awake with maracas, and Dave Grohl laying into his drum kit. You're still in Homme's car, only now you're rocketing along the desert. You still don't know where you're going, but Homme looks piqued. Or at least, he no longer looks like his face might peal off in rivulets if you turn away. Homme warns you in sing-song that that feeling of re-assurance you now have, the one you're clinging to desperately? Probably not real either. "Far beyond the desert road, where everything ends good the empty space, mental erase, forgive, forgot." You're moving just as fast as you were in, "If I Had a Tail," but this time, you're moving towards something. The song is a prayer, a supplicating, self-obliterating push toward closure: "Heal them, like fire from a gun, kneeling, my god is the sun, heal them, like fire from above, kneeling, my the sun." Homme's pregnant pauses are glaring, but the song is only picking up speed. So he moans, like a scared choir boy that also does a killer Jerry Lewis impression. And his howling grows in your mind until it sounds like, "Ahooowaaauuuhhhhhhuhhhh."

But "My God is the Sun" is invigorating! It's haunting, but it's also an oasis, or a rallying cry, something nice like that. So by the time you see the horizon-wide cliff you sailed over in the last song, you want Homme to punch it. Maybe you won't crash this time; maybe there's no bottom.

Then there's "Kalopsia," which starts with a hollow din, and a teasing, flute-like synth giggle. A clock is chiming midnight somewhere in the distance. What time is it? Obviously some time has passed between cuts, but apart from this brief, hazy interlude, it doesn't feel that long. "Kalopsia," as it's explained in the song's music video, is, "A condition where things appear more beautiful than they are." You hear the thunderous lub-dub of a heart beating, and the pumping hiss of breathing machines. Then the song sounds like mournful muzak. You're better than safe, you're numb again, euphoric. But you're still dreaming with Homme, and all this? This sad sack aura you've built for yourself, the one you're so eager to shake? It can't go away. In fact, this song is essentially a critique of the last, superficially happier song, "Rose-tinted eyes, color my sorrow a shade of, 'Why?' Bye bye, black balloon, see you real soon. Wave bye-bye, buh-bye..."

Homme's guitar spits out feedback, and a rising wall of noise kicks up. He screams back at the leviathan Depression (because that's what it looks/sounds like), but it doesn't take. And eventually, you're brought down to earth with a weightless thud. "Is it wonderful," Homme wonders aloud, slurring like a hungover Sylvester the cat. Back to elevator music, and a distant chant of, "Kalopsia...Kalopsia? Kalopsia...." You don't see whatever just floored you, but you know it's there. Steel yourself for the worst.

Homme's tunefully drowning in his own bullshit when he screams, "And I love you more than I can control." He settles down, and sulks, "I don't even try, why would I," before Goliath shows up again. Now Homme's singing to you, because you're a little nervous. "Oh, why the long face, you've got it all wrong!" Panic. Do something, man, anything. "Forget the rat, and the race, we'll choke-chain them all!" No, bluster won't help, face the music, get help, say a prayer. "Fate favors the ones who help themselves." No, no, not that caca about self-improvement, not now, what're my other options? What do you mean, 'There are none?!' "The rest feel the sting of the lash as they run (as thy ruuuuuun) to Hell."

And something happens. Presumably, you get knocked out, because the song teeters like a bowling pin. "Tonight (toniiiiight!)." Homme's guitar see-saws like a cop car's siren before he crashes with an unapologetic, drawn-out belch. Not with a whimper, but a gassy croak: "Mreeuuuuhhhhh."

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