Adding a meditative dance-rock album to their extensive discography, Queens of the Stone Age returned with its eighth studio album, Villains. After a long history of feverish rock albums, the group collaborated with producer Mark Ronson, one of the masterminds behind “Uptown Funk,” and the result was a groovy album driven by unrelenting energy. Paired with lyrics detailing the universal struggle of the human condition, the album took the listener on a journey through the starts and fits of life as we all know it.
The album opens with “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” a track that hypes you up by building soft, persistent drums and funky, crisp guitar chords. The track introduces the conflict that will string together the rest of the album, namely, the inexplicable tension that drives life and the inevitable need to keep going. As vocalist and guitarist Josh Homme explained, “Life is hard, that’s why no one survives / Feel like a fool … footloose and fancy free.” The marching, powerful guitar sounds fun and propels the song forward, which complements the lyrics that champion dancing around in the face of difficulty.
In addition, the band’s anti-establishment streak is introduced by lyrics: “To be so civilized, one must tell civil lies.” The word-play on “civilized” cleverly twists the notion of civilization to include the immorality that it tries to shun, making lies inseparable from society, and challenging the goodness of the institutions that are all around us. The vocals grow to be hazy and trippy, which brings an element of transcendence over the repetitive “agony” of life, which carries through the succeeding songs.
Perhaps the most playful song on the album, “The Way You Used To Do,” incorporates clapping percussion with a bouncy, acidic guitar for a youthful love anthem. The song burns up with lyrics including, “Is love a mental disease or lucky fever dream? / Fine with either,” which conveys the sort of torture that seems agreeable to the lyricist. What makes the song, and several others on the album, so thrilling is its attention to detail. As the singer takes a sultry tone for “So lay your hands across my beating heart,” a heartbeat drum is all that the accompanies the lyric, while the tempo and volume are reduced for a second. On a thumping rock album, this attention to small detail keeps listeners engaged and along for the ride.
As the album progresses, the more unsettling, titular villain presence becomes more prominent. “Domesticated Animals,” develops into a sparse, angsty guitar arrangement that highlights the repetitive nature of its lyrical content. Lyrics like “You get right up and sit back down / A revolution is one spin around,” conveys a disillusionment with the notion that humans will succeed in some great overthrow of its existential oppression. The unsettling tone morphs into reassurance with “Fortress,” a more melodic track full of minor keys and a sentiment embodied by “If ever your fortress caves / You’re always safe in mine.” While the uneasiness of the prior tracks is preserved in a more lighthearted context, the track gives way to the devilish headbanger, “Head Like a Haunted House.” With fragmented, distorted lyrics and a flippant dismissal of the norm, the track is a chaotic number dedicated to calling out the phonies through the occasional, savage scream.
The album lapses into a slower-tempo respite with “Un-Reborn Again” and “Hideaway.” The tracks, featuring moody, meandering melodies carry on the album’s tendency to oscillate between confrontational and sprawling songs. “Un-Reborn Again” uses an unconventional song structure, whose attitudes stem from the lyric, “Frozen in pose locked up in amber eternally/ Buried so close to the fountain of youth you can almost reach.” When harsh guitar slams into the song and follows with a soft a cappella section, the listener gets the sense that the song is reminiscent of the outbursts and shifts that characterize life. “Hideaway” brings the concept of love back from earlier in the album to explain the vulnerability and yearning that underlies human belonging.
After the trippy, upbeat track “The Evil Has Landed,” the final song, “Villains of Circumstance” takes the album to an introspective, slow-burning close. Full of discordant crashes and soft, speculative vocals, the track meditates on attempting to hold onto life even as it slips away. The occasional fits containing furious drums and screeching guitar summarize the sentiment. The instrumentation conveys the emotion better than the lyrics do, which plainly state, “It’s so hard to explain, so easy to feel.” The discord that comes of discussing the course of life as something to rebel against and succumb to culminates in the lyric, “Save me from the villains of circumstance/ Before I lose my place.” As the weight of these realizations sink in and the album’s energy surges, the track completes the listener’s understanding of the overwhelming, astronomical narrative in which they live.
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