BY JEFF LEVEN
Dear Lord. I was all set to file the Queens of the Stone Age’s third and latest offering Songs for the Deaf as some sort of triumphant comeback that reinvigorated the meaning of “alternative rock” — that now vaguely cynical catch-all category that appears to include the vast insufferable legions of Nicklebacks, Creeds and Puddles of Mudd. But I was going to go the grunge route. I was going to set it up with some big sweeping statement about how the musical output of the early ’90s was actually, in retrospect, pretty remarkable before Kurt pulled the trigger and brought the big flannel machine back down to Earth. I wanted to wax nostalgic about the era of Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney, and put in a plug for the Screaming Trees’ under-appreciated masterwork Dust.
I thought this was the perfect set-up. I mean, the Queens of the Stone Age are, in their current incarnation, pretty much the post-grunge supergroup. You’ve got Josh Homme, singer/guitarist from the amazing but forgotten Kyuss, Nick Oliveri, whose career included stops with porn-punkers the Dwarves, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees fame, a visit from Dean Ween, and of course, behind the kit, none other than Dave Grohl himself, fresh from the Top-40 airwaves for another stab at mayhem.
But then I listened to the album. The first few tracks played along with my scheme just fine. The opening moments of “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” take a healthy blast at today’s flaccid radio playlists before Grohl rips into the drums, the big sludgy guitars take off and we’re flying. Things get a little artier and catchier on the hellhammer polka of “No One Knows,” and “Song for the Dead” is a bizarre little harrumphing dirge that leaves me waiting for the mooing guitar fill at the end of each verse. I pause and scratch my head a little at the flamenco guitar moment in “The Sky Is Fallin’,” grit my teeth and endure Homme’s little tantrum on “Six Shooter,” (the album’s only real brain fart), and by the time we hit “Go With the Flow,” and “Gonna Leave You,” we’re in pop territory. But then, just when I had this whole grunge story wrapped up, comes “Another Love Song,” and it hits me. Dear Lord. This isn’t a grunge album from the 1990s — this is a grunge album from the 1960s!
It’s not just that “Another Love Song” has the frenetic orchestration and vaguely Transylvanian beat of those classic American garage anthems that populate the legendary Nuggets collections (featuring bands like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the Sonics, the Chocolate Watchband and many, many more). More than that, this is the song that calls into focus just how sprawling, weird, arty and compelling Songs for the Deaf really is. This is more than just the maybe-we-can-market-our-teenage-anger energy of the Seattle scene of the 1990s. No, this is the energy of an earlier and headier musical vintage — hearkening back to the dawn of psychedelic rock when the pitch and sprawl of musical experimentation was at an early zenith, where unknown bands toiled away in unknown garages making strange weird music that, for the most part, are still only the ambrosia of the most obsessed record collectors. In other words, this is an experimental garage rock album like those made in a time when rock n’ roll was still something new, weird, dangerous and beautiful.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Songs for the Deaf is the fact that it is a burst of nice, complicated blessedly heavy noise to a time when rock n’ roll is rarely so unabashedly extravagant, thoughtful, intense, or original. While most bands paper over their lack of musical prowess with an appeal to hackneyed emotivism, QOTSA are, like the Screaming Trees before them, coy and chameleonic in their perspective. The songs don’t ever sound particularly heartbroken or horny or self-assured: Instead, they warble out of the sides of Homme and Lanegan’s mouths with no particular posture to fall on. The effect is arresting — vocally, the album sounds like the chanting of twisted monks rather than the navel-gazings of yet another carefully-primped pretty boy trying to sound like Eddie Vedder or Layne Staley. Where their chants are directed is at times unclear, but if, as they say “God Is In the Radio,” perhaps QOTSA has come to finally save us from the demons of monotony.
Of course Songs for the Deaf is not perfect. As much as most critics love to love QOTSA, and as good a reception as this album has been getting, it’s not exactly the world’s best party disc. Like its predecessor, Rated R, Songs for the Deaf is a concept album in a metal album’s clothing. Sure, there are tons of heavy, gritty, mid-rangey guitars and Grohl, while slightly thin sounding, tends to drum at alarming speed. But the bizarre vocal chants that riddle the songs and the somewhat unsettling keys that the band tends to fall into hurtle the band towards the type of abstraction that fellow sludge-merchants Fu Manchu or Monster Magnet would never contemplate. Even the sonorous acoustic balladry of the hidden track “Mosquito Song” is left with a slightly strange aftertaste by virtue of its juxtaposition with the rest of the album’s sonic onslaught.
Then again, most great bands over time earn the right to put out a “thinking album” — an album where the heat and bristle gives way somewhat to exploration and ambition in the way that Led Zeppelin IV, for instance, fed into Houses of the Holy. While comparisons to Zep may as of now be hyperbolic, I suspect that time will prove Rated R to be QOTSA’s fun, loud, smart album and Songs for the Deaf to be QOTSA’s arty, loud, slightly smarter album — at moments misguided and probably slightly inferior overall, but a victory nonetheless.