Better. Than. Sex...
It’s either fluke or a reassuring testament to the universal morality of rock’n’roll. But either way, it’s terribly bloody sad. The Atlantic Ocean, in rock-demographic terms, couldn’t be wider right now. Not so much a tale of two cities, but two mutually exclusive religions; not battling (because everyone’s having too much fun) but working at polar opposites of the spectrum.
Britain, under the spiritual tutelage of The Libertines, finds itself in the scuzzy throes of the oik rock revolution, taking its folklore from a forgotten Dickensian England; a world of malnourished young indie fops loaded up on poetry, opium and the romance of the city. The US, meanwhile, finds its godheads in Queens Of The Stone Age; slaves to the riff, locked into an exaggerated alpha-masculinity and riding through the desert on the back of a big, fuck-off flatbed truck. Culture and Nature boiled down to the base components of rock’n’roll, if you ever wanted to sound that pretentious. Neither side has had it so good for years, and neither knows or cares much about each other.
But last year, both dynasties suffered devastating schisms at their centre that bore frightening parallels. Two long-time collaborators (but more importantly, best mates) with a bond bordering on the bottomsexual, were torn apart when one half, growing fed-up with the other’s drug mania, took the hardest decision of their lives, booting their compadre out of the band they founded together. As if it needs saying, Pete staggered on as even more wheels fell off his Babyshambles project while Carl did the decent thing and hit The Libertines’ self-destruct button.
With the Queens, things aren’t so clear-cut. Nick flailed round with his occasional Mondo Generator project and a few ropey acoustic outings with professional bad influence Mark Lanegan, while it became abundantly clear that the soul of the Queens belonged to Josh. Our ginger hero has a useful caveat in soldiering on: the Queens have always been a loose collection of musicians on one side of a revolving door – you don’t get any job security, but you do get to be in a band with Dave Grohl from time to time.
What ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’ does is highlight what Nick brought to the band while forging a tantalising new template now he’s gone. It’s the best, and only, thing they could have done. Unsurprisingly for a man prone to getting naked onstage, it’s no surprise to hear confirmed that Nick brought the rampant Tasmanian-devil tendencies to the group. That was what gave ‘Songs For The Deaf’ its urgency, but if we’re being Mr Brightside about this, also why the album had less lasting depth than its two predecessors. Josh was always somewhere between He-Man and Elvis, and this album, while ostensibly a return to his stoner-rock Kyuss roots, builds that character into multiple dimensions and turns out as the band’s most human collection to date.
The Queens’ new ‘visual identity’ is set in a spooky forest, so it’s no coincidence that this, too, is where the record is placed (if you want an easy comparison, imagine that ‘Songs For The Deaf’ was set in a quarry). Where the last record got its cock out from the very outset with the rabid ‘You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire’, this time the entire opening scene is given over to Lanegan, growling his way through ‘Lullaby’ like a friendly ogre before the beast stirs and pulls out the battering ram that is ‘Medication’. That’s two exhilarating sides of the same coin, and in its first three minutes, covers more ground than ‘Songs For The Deaf’ ever did.
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Things move on again as ‘Everybody Knows That You’re Insane’ which, during its lurching opening chimes, could be Queen before the engines power up and the record finally begin in earnest. ‘Tangled Up In Plaid’ sees Josh realising he should have kept ‘I’ll Be Anything You Want’ – the tune he wrote for Melissa Auf Der Maur last year – for himself and turning out a rollicking male counterpart to her She-Ra version.
And it’s around this time that you realise these really are lullabies because night is falling, and the sludgy, pagan thump of ’Burn The Witch’ sounds like some kind of Druid parade around a big bonfire that the Queens sit themselves down around, catching little fairies in their hands and singing songs to them. Because this is where things get really clever. Before, you could never accuse the Queens of being subtle or tender but on ‘In My Head’, as Josh finally gets comfortable in his falsetto, that’s exactly what they become. Maybe it’s the love of a bad woman (if ever you want to scare yourself, just try imagining what kind of sex Josh and Brody have together – and shiver). It’s effortlessly cool and improbably beautiful, so much so that the single ‘Little Sister’ – a zippy exercise in stripped-down restraint – almost slips by, especially as it’s followed by ‘I Never Came’, rather like ‘In My Head’ but this time achingly sad as well.
Thing is, that’s eight fearsome songs and we’re still only warming up. By now, it’s night time in the forest and things are getting very, very weird. ‘Someone’s In The Wolf’ and ‘The Blood Is Love’ (you can only talk about them both together) form this record’s colossal centrepiece. They’re closest in celestial magic to ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ off ‘Rated R’ but again, the pagan shiver that runs through this whole collection elevate these swollen stoner jams into something far, far more soulful than just a bunch of brilliant musicians flexing their muscles together (which they are as well). They sound like an orgy in a swamp.
’Skin On Skin’ is even sludgier than that, all spleen-crunkling bass and wah-wah hysteria. That the record follows this climax by building/collapsing into a chaotic, multi-directional stoner trance through ‘Broken Box’, ‘You Got A Killer Scene’ (featuring “filthy bitches” Brody and Shirley Manson) and the dirgy ‘Long Slow Goodbye’ has probably disappointed the record company, doubtless hoping they would turn out a collection of tits-out radio rock. Because this isn’t the album that’s going to turn the Queens into the kind of planet-eating megastar cash cows they still might become. It may also disappoint the fairweather slaves to top-line vocal melody who quibble about ‘pop songs’ and were hoping for a collection of 12 variations on ‘No-One Knows’. Sure, this is unashamedly a fan’s record from a muso’s band. But the curious history that led to its creation has also led to something far more interesting than the alternative. Music for fucking and fighting to, yes, but a million miles away from dumb.
The clue is in the question. Where ‘Songs For The Deaf’ was about jumping up and down until your eardrums burst, ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’ will use its enigmatic mysticism to lull you into a blissful daze so you don’t at first notice that the riffs have broken your neck. Better. Than. Sex.