"I'm one of a kind," Josh Homme boasts on the new Queens of the Stone Age album. "I'm designer!" Well, that's one way to put it. There aren't any others like him, that's for sure, and he's never been an easy one to figure out. Here's a rock star who seems to shuffle his band's lineup as often as he shaves his back, yet who always sounds like himself, making fun of solemn art types but working harder than any of them. He manages to be the token metal dude for indie kids and the token punk for headbangers, without compromising for either camp. Homme makes music in all kinds of incarnations — the Queens, Eagles of Death Metal, his endless Desert Sessions projects. But he always seems to inhabit his own musical world, a zone where lost kids chase the desert acid-trip vibe of classic Seventies midnight movies like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop. Really, the scene in Vanishing Point where the naked hippie chick cruises across the desert sand on her Harley, blasting Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," could be the starting point for every song on this album.
Era Vulgaris is Homme's fifth Queens album, and like the others, it's intricately crafted, meticulously polished and ruthlessly efficient in its pursuit of depraved rock thrills, with robotic rhythm machines like "Turning on the Screw" and "I'm Designer." Last time, Homme got slept on with the excellent but underrated Lullabies to Paralyze — people were thrown off initially by its down-in-the-dumps mood, which may be why the music took longer to kick in for some fans. But Era Vulgaris is a lot cockier than Lullabies, clobbering you instantly with guitars louder and uglier than a psychedelic biker party at Joshua Tree's Skull Rock. "Misfit Love" is the ultimate Queens anthem, all low-register guitar crunch, with a percussion track that sounds like tennis balls the size of Betelgeuse crashing into a Moog factory. Homme snarls, "I wanna see my past in flames," and he gets his wish.
Supposedly, his party buddies at the Era Vulgaris sessions included Trent Reznor, the Strokes' Julian Casablancas and regular guest Mark Lanegan. But none of them are really audible — are you surprised? Instead, we get the many moods of Josh Homme, most of which concern the miracle of physical love and the procurement thereof. He's always said he wanted the Queens to be a band for the ladies, not the menfolk, and from the vocals to the bass lines this is his most crotch-tensive music. "Make It Wit Chu" is an old Desert Sessions song, revamped into a ridiculous lover-boy plaint, with Homme doing his sleaziest falsetto over a lounge-lizard cousin of Neil Young's "Southern Man." "Into the Hollow" is a surprisingly tender purple-haze ballad, with Homme's vibrato amid a gently quivering wah-wah and the usual assload of bass. "Run Pig Run" is staccato jackhammer blues metal, "3's and 7's" sounds like prime Nirvana and "Sick, Sick, Sick" is manic punk riffing, offering "a lick on the lips and a grip on your hips." All excellent news for Brody Dalle.
Homme is a man of many surprises. Here's something you wouldn't expect about Era Vulgaris: the influence of New Wave synth geek Gary Numan is all over this record. Even rave-ups like "Battery Acid," "Suture Up Your Future" and "3's and 7's" have vintage-synth hooks copped from The Pleasure Principle — it may sound crazy, but if there's one thing you should have learned about Homme by now, he'll heist a badass riff from anywhere. In "I'm Designer," he sings about his "generation" and means it, his fey falsetto a parody of hippie cosmic aspirations. But even though the joke is a great one, you hear that falsetto, and you realize it's here for one main reason, just like every other sonic flourish on Era Vulgaris: Josh Homme loves how it sounds.