Classic Music Review: Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age

As she held the album cover, her exquisitely manicured fingers trembled with anxiety. She had been here before, facing the possibility of reviewing another album from her salad days,  filled with self-doubt that she could avoid the generational bias displayed by Baby Boomers, who pronounce every record made during their teenage years an “all-time classic.” The doubt that pervaded her soul was seasoned with a feeling of dread, for she had listened to several albums she thought were the bees’ knees during her teens and twenties only to discover that they were little more than one-dimensional turkeys.

After a lengthy reverie on the history of the pitchfork, she finally removed the disc from the sleeve, took a deep breath and placed the record gently on the turntable. She then allowed her body, draped in a sheer blue kimono in response to the Mediterranean heat, to assume a sitting position in her buttercream leather chair, then reached for her headphones with all the reluctance of a catcher slipping on the mask after taking another low slider in the nuts. She sat rather stiffly for a while in suspended silence, staring at the disk, wondering how human beings ever thought of using shellac and vinyl as a sound medium. She then fluffed her professionally-coiffed hair, an enhancement provided by a local stylist in exchange for a whipping demonstration. Eventually she decided she should have a cigarette to calm her nerves. Her exquisitely manicured fingers shook almost imperceptibly as she placed the cigarette between her exquisitely brilliant front teeth, the spotless enamel revealing a salacious affair with a specialist in cosmetic dentistry. She lit the cigarette, and the glow from her lighter revealed no wrinkles or imperfections on her exquisitely formed skin, the result of a series of torrid dalliances with several dermatologists. After a good long drag, she finally sent the disc a-spinning.

For a few moments her expression remained as empty as the contents of Donald Trump’s brain. A minute or so later, she allowed herself a small smile, as if recalling a pleasant memory, and relaxed her posture. She soon found herself nodding her head in sync to the beat while her right foot tapped out the bass drum part with increasing intensity. In a few more minutes, her entire body could be seen undulating to the music, until finally she flung open her kimono, closed her delicately mascaraed eyes and allowed the fingers of her exquisitely manicured right hand to wander to her nether regions, where she applied sufficient touch to induce a triplet of orgasms. She lit another cigarette, exhaled, and whispered the words, “Fuck, yeah!” to the empty room.

Songs of the Deaf has been on my review list for sometime, but as noted in the intro, I stayed the hell away from it for fear of triggering hormonally-driven generational bias. I hadn’t listened to Songs of the Deaf for five years, hoping that someday my neuroses would pass and I could finally get the fuck on with it. Scratching Queens of the Stone Age from my infamous fuck playlists was a painful experience, as there are certain songs of theirs that blend extraordinarily well with the sadomasochistic experience.

I made sacrifices for you, people!

As measured by the orgasmo-meter, Songs for the Deaf remains a fierce, relentlessly hot listening experience fifteen years after its release. It’s also loaded with humor in the form of scripted DJ prattle between several tracks, satirizing the conventions of commercial radio by mimicking the experience of driving from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree (frontman Josh Homme’s birthplace). And while the recording process was well underway when Dave Grohl signed on as a temp, his feedback and drumming helped tighten the loose spots and shape a lot of promising ideas into a kick-ass powerhouse of a record.

The album begins with . . . well, officially it’s track zero, and unless you have speakers or headphones equipped to capture sounds in the absolute zero range of bass, you might not hear anything at all! “The Real Song for the Deaf” consists of sounds designed to create vibrations, one of the primary mediums through which the deaf experience music. And “deaf” is not an absolute, fixed state, as there are varying degrees of deafness . . . here, watch this video and you’ll understand that deafness is not an absolute barrier to music appreciation:

Next we hear that irritating warning noise indicating you’ve left the car door open, followed by the sound of the ignition firing up while someone fiddles around with the radio dial. We eventually land on “K-L-O-N Los Angeles. Clone radio—we play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else.” The DJ babbles on for a while, and towards the end of his schtick we hear a lo-fi drum pattern with clear backbeat punctuation. After a few measures, a lo-fi distorted guitar joins in with a straightforward riff for four measures, and you begin to prepare yourself for the possibility that “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” is a statement of commitment to low-fidelity recording. Then WHAM! Bass, full drums, full guitar and Nick Oliveri’s screaming vocal arrive in a full-volume high-fidelity explosion that completely fills your soul and sends delightful shockwaves through every fiber of your body. The band remains absolutely fixed on the C5 chord for the entire first verse, like a stud opening the spread with hard, no-nonsense thrusts in what turns out to be very aggressive foreplay—when the band shifts to the F5-Eb5 combo, it hits you right in the sweet spot and you’re ready to exfuckingplode. The second verse features more intricate riffing around the root chord and a nifty half-step hiccup in the rhythm to give you another frisson. Then, as they’re driving, driving, driving like motherfuckers with a vengeance, WHAM! Absolute silence. WAAAAH! Don’t stop now, you bastards! And right on cue, they go back to the full court press for a few precious seconds before another shocking moment of silence.

I immediately reach for a cigarette, but the sharp, stunning power chords that open “No One Knows” feel like the boys have slapped that cigarette out of my hand because they ain’t done yet! Well, you’ve come to the right place, boys! Drive it all the way fucking home!

Before I get too wet and out-of-control, I’ll mention that I love the pairing of “Millionaire” and “No One Knows, which is brilliantly connective: the C-Eb chord combo in “Millionaire” beautifully complements that ripping C-minor chord that opens and dominates “No One Knows.” And while people pay a lot of attention to the drums—which ARE fucking outstanding—I pay just as much attention to Nick Oliveri’s bass and the erotic groans he creates with his nimble fingers, mirroring the vocalization of the pre-orgasmic state when your partner keeps making all the right moves and your conscious mind takes a back seat to your pleasure center. Hnnn. The bridge (the song really doesn’t have a chorus in the technical sense) is off-the-charts intense, with drums rolling at manic speed, guitars flying, bass throbbing and Josh Homme providing contrasting restraint as he smoothly shifts between falsetto and straight vocal over the rising half-step chord pattern. The guitar solo passage is certified killer, with everyone giving it everything they’ve got until they all resolve on point and make a spotlessly clean cut to Oliveri’s two-note bass riff. The back-to-back, four-to-the-floor experience of “Millionaire” and “No One Knows” inspires an exhilarating feeling of liberation, as there are few experiences in life outside of the boudoir that are as exciting as a tight band playing at full power.

As you may have guessed, I love to fuck to this song, and it’s going on all my fuck playlists as soon as I put this review to bed. While the music would have earned it a prominent spot, it’s really the lyrics that take the song to another level of goddamned sexy. In the first verse, noted libertarian Josh Homme bemoans the absurdity of rules governing adult human behavior and the mass programming delivered by pharma companies who get rich by reinforcing the authoritarian message, “The reason why you think things are fucked up is because YOU are fucked up. Here’s something to help you manage the condition we just invented to ease your hypochondriac symptoms, you pathetic, sniveling weakling!” The only way to deal with society’s demands for control and conformity is a close, intimate, private and absolutely real relationship:

We get some rules to follow
That and this, these and those
No one knows
We get these pills to swallow
How they stick in your throat
Taste like gold
Oh what you do to me
No one knows

The bridge lines, “I realize you’re mine/Indeed a fool am I” express the difficulty in leaving the world behind due to the powerfully seductive allure of the long-shot possibility of success and satisfaction in the journey through “life.” All of us have two selves: the one that goes out in the world to make money or make a difference; and the other that emerges once you lock the door behind you and do the things that are really important to you. For me, it’s sex, music and baseball; for others it might be crafts, video games, gardening—whatever keeps your spirit alive. The second verse describes going out in the world as a “journey through the desert of the mind with no hope,” yet the narrator sadly admits, “I follow.” If you can’t relate to that metaphor, Homme and Oliveri offer another: drifting in the ocean in a dead lifeboat, where the narrator finds himself “Pleasantly caving in/I come undone.” The funereal background vocals accompanying this verse intensify the gloom of this lifeless world. While those moaning vocals might also conjure up images of condemned souls burning in the fires of hell, our narrator also rejects the consolation prize of comfort in the afterlife in favor of the intimacy staring him in the face:

Heaven smiles above me
What a gift here below
But no one knows
The gift that you give to me
No one knows

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank my partner for the gift she has given me. Not one, not ever.

When I set up my playlist for “No One Knows,” I have to cut it off at the 4:13 mark or I will ruin the scene by breaking into helpless fits of delighted laughter accompanied by the rare feeling of nostalgia. I miss the fuck out of hearing Mexican DJ’s pop up on the radio as I drove around L. A. and the Bay Area, talking a mile a minute but with astonishing clarity. Spanish-Language radio was an important component in my Spanish education, especially the relatively few rock stations where I learned to sing along with Alejandra Guzman and Paulina Rubio. It hurts to think I’ll never have that experience again.

Fuck you and all your white supremacist, gun-toting cronies, Donald Trump.

We move away from seriously sexy to a song that would have made Joe Strummer proud, the anti-drug message piece, “First It Giveth.” The high-speed bass picking that opens the number is soon accompanied by equally high-speed picking on lead guitar, combining to create a powerful oscillation effect offset by the beat-focused drum part—almost like you’re on overwhelm from the drugs and are trying to steady yourself with mixed results. The chorus relieves some of the tension as the band shifts to a modern wall-of-sound with a more driving rhythm, followed by a temporary rhythmic break where the rhythm section vanishes, replaced by a sweet, falling guitar riff when the lyrics shift to what passes for self-reflection (“I would beg/I would plead/I would shake.)” When the power returns for the rest of the verse, I’m intrigued most of all by the lines “By the way/I’m so young/And beautiful (that’s right/I’m slick),” which gives us three interpretive possibilities: a.) I’m young and beautiful therefore nothing will hurt me; b.) I’m young and beautiful and taking drugs is what the young and beautiful do or c.) I’m young and beautiful and what the fuck am I doing to myself? Although all were probably true during the various phases of addiction, the song clearly resolves around c.), as the closing lines demonstrate:

I’m no fool
Time goes by
Tables turn
Now I know
First it give’th
Then it take’th away

I love the dissonant chord changes in the chorus during the fade, mirroring a still tenuous state of affairs.

“Song for the Dead” begins with an eerie organ cut out of a cheap horror film before giving way to edgy high-speed guitar peppered with irregular drum patterns, in turn followed by an accelerated rhythm . . . that collapses into a rock dirge. Grunge hero Mark Lanegan doesn’t have much of a melody or a feel to work with, and the song winds up being rather draggy and dull except for the blues-tinged guitar passage. The mood of “Sky Is Falling” is by contrast more intriguing, a dark waltz enhanced by stereo Josh Homme dah-dahing the melodic line in harmony. Once the band cranks it up, we have a solid piece with just enough diversity in the soundscape and shifting chord patterns to hold your interest. Although the general feeling is dark-heavy, I have a sense that this could make a pretty nice acoustic number if someone’s up to it. It’s followed by the incredibly noisy “Six Shooter,” a sort of protest song about road rage that falls way, way short of the lasting power of Offspring’s “Bad Habit.” “Hanging Tree” gives Mark Hanegan much more to work with, and his gruff voice fits perfectly with the dark and eerie mood, communicating a deeply ironic sense of nostalgia in his renditions of the chorus: “‘Round the hanging tree/Swayin’ in the breeze/In the summer sun/As we two are one.” Sounds lovely! I can offer no light-shedding interpretation of this song, but Hanegan makes it a compelling listening experience.

Still, I am getting a little antsy, but QotSA provides the cure with “Go with the Flow,” a track that bursts into your tired ears like life-giving medicine. Goddamn, does this song kick ass or what? This is three minutes of non-stop, high-speed passion with every band member playing at maximum energy, featuring the best set of vocals on the album. The weaving of call-and-response, spot harmonies, vocal fills and background support in all the right places is mesmerizing, especially in conjunction with the hard-driving rhythm. The lyrics are among the best on the album, telling a story that moves from a break-up narrative to a revelatory experience.

First, the break-up. Even though the relationship is over, the narrator absolutely refuses to dismiss it as a mistake or something to chalk up to experience. It mattered. It was more than the pictures she gave him to keep her in mind . . . it was the closeness, the sharing, the expansive experience of learning about another human being:

She said “I’ll throw myself away,
They’re just photos after all”
I can’t make you hang around.
I can’t wash you off my skin.
Outside the frame, is what we’re leaving out
You won’t remember anyway
I can go with the flow
But don’t say it doesn’t matter anymore
I can go with the flow
Do you believe it your head

The first four lines of the second verse define the problem that leads to the revelation: traditional relationships tend to play by the rules of the game, rules that reflect the mindset of a consumerist society where people shop for partners and toss them out with the junk once they’re no longer useful. Another notch on my jockstrap; another story for the coffee klatch:

It’s so safe to play along
Little soldiers in a row
Falling in and out of love
With something sweet to throw away.

The revelation gets at the purpose of it all, moving beyond societal definition of role and responsibility to something more personally meaningful—relationships that genuinely matter:

But I want something good to die for
To make it beautiful to live.
I want a new mistake, lose is more than hesitate.

Goddamn, if I had the available space, I’d tattoo those lyrics on my ass. This is the point of everything, people! We’re all going to croak! Let’s make things beautiful! Let’s make every mistake in the book without feeling one iota of guilt about it!

And I love the video . . . horny boys driving straight to the sweet spot where soon, after a little of this and a little of that, a nuclear orgasm fills the screen.

Hey, I’m up for more! How about you? Nick Oliveri leaves the screams for another day and delivers a smooth and almost soothing vocal in a very different kind of break-up song, “Gonna Leave You.” Here the revelation is that the other party is playing hard-to-get, holding out for another stud and probably using this guy as backup relief. “Oh, what the hell. I’ll fuck Harvey tonight.” The narrator’s response is cool, calm and collected, realizing that she’s a child (highchair reference) and he’s a co-dependent (womb reference). Josh Homme’s off-key guitar intro foreshadows a tale of a relationship gone sour, and the steady driving beat reflects the narrator’s firm resolve that this bitch is history.

Keeping the heat on high, QotSA gives us the syncopated rhythm of “Do It Again.” Sometimes I picture this growling, punchy blast of a song with a row of leggy dancers punctuating the backbeat—one-two-three-KICK . . . but most of the time I picture something else—tickle-tickle-tickle THRUST with a guy possessing superb control of hard member. Hey! This isn’t just a perpetually-horny bitch talking—it’s right there in the lyrics!

You and me
Fit so tight
I go lower and lower and lower lower livin easy
I don’t know, I don’t know what I got till it’s over
You and me
Fit so tight
Can you do it again
Do it again
Do it again
Can you do it again

And damn if the mood isn’t broken by a college DJ asking people to donate blood. Arggh! Change the station! No, not that! Try again! Fuck! What is all this devil and Jesus shit?

It’s the bridge to “God Is in the Radio,” a heavy piece with a nice, sleazy feel and a killer syncopated chorus. The music alone earns it a spot in my fuck playlists, as the combination of syncopation and disciplined distortion provides suitably intense support for the many naughty things I like to do. There are two best-of performances on this song: I find Mark Lanegan’s rough and sexy vocal incredibly thrilling; and Josh Homme’s lead guitar solos rip through my body like electric fire. I just love the tones he wheedles out of his guitar and how he can shift from manic to pure discipline in a split second. As for the lyrics, my best guess is the narrator is something of a paranoiac, looking for god in all the wrong places. Mark Lanegan could be singing the lyrics to a Beef-a-Roni commercial for all I care . . . I’m only here for the heat.

There is no heat in “Another Love Song,” and the cha-cha-cha flavor music reminds me of one of those dramatic yarns popularized by Jay and the Americans. The track does lead into a radio spot from a professional dominatrix . . . which gives me pause. As a dominant female, I find BDSM professionals a bit annoying, but then again, I think you’re better off going to resolve your self-esteem issues in a dungeon than in a therapist’s office or a church. The dominatrix is more of an actor, whereas I AM NOT. Here’s the full transcript of her message to her “pets”:

This is W-O-M-B, the Womb. And if you, my pets, learn to listen, I’ll let you crawl back in. Here is something you should drop to your knees for . . . and worship. But you’re too stupid to realize yourselves. A song for the deaf that is for you.

I’ve never called a submissive a pet. I’ve never called a submissive stupid. There are better ways to wake minds, hearts and bodies and help a sexually-oriented person get in touch with themselves. Professionals are primarily for people who need to act out their humiliation fantasies to relieve stress and restore balance. I have no desire to couple with people in that stage of human development.

Thank you for your patience. And now, the thrilling conclusion to this review.

“Song for the Deaf” is a grand, theatrical piece, combining metal and progressive rock influences in a dark, moody soundscape peppered with half-step and flattened 3rd chord changes to accentuate the eeriness of it all. Distant howls and hellish vocalizations add to the devilishness, and Mark Lanegan’s stop-time narrative following the first two verses intensifies the build. The piece feels like a journey through whatever dystopian landscape you want to conjure up, and so from a musical perspective, I find “Song for the Deaf” almost mesmerizing. As for the lyrics . . . though I was hoping for something that explored the more common form of deafness (you know, the kind of deafness Republicans in both our countries display), they’re pretty much a bowl of alphabet soup held together by some compelling imagery and musical support (most vividly demonstrated in the band’s response to the word, “singin'” where guitar and voice respond with “lah-de-da” melodizing). Another DJ appears after the finish, with what appears to be a send-off: “You’re listening to W-A-N-T, the high desert, wonder valley favorite radio station. It’s been a good night. Dave Catching here. Not saying goodnight, just saying . . .”

Followed by a long, long silence. Bummer.

Blimey! There’s a hidden track! No . . . wait a minute . . . haunting 12-string . . . this sounds more like British folk music . . . this can’t be QotSA. Oh, wait . . . . ah, yes, the lyrics. Yep, it’s QotSA:

You know I’m told they’ll swallow you whole,
Skin and bone
Cutting boards, hanging hooks
Bloody knives, cooking books
Promising you won’t feel a thing at all
Swallow and chew, eat you alive
All of us food, that hasn’t died

“Mosquito Song” feels like satire, but I’m not 100% sure. The unexpected village green musical style is given respectful treatment, as the musicians generally follow modern British folk arrangement conventions. During the acoustic passage, the 12-string is joined by accordion (of course), followed by a perfectly lovely piano-and-string (probably e-bow) passage, leading to a grand passage with horns and timpani before we return to guitar-and-voice in the closing verse. The music is really quite nice; the lyrics—a deliberate exaggeration of the feeding habits of the mosquito—leave more than a little to be desired. If nothing else, it shows both the range of the band and their penchant for bringing in guest musicians to join in the revelry.

After not having heard the album for five long years, I was absolutely floored by the sheer power of Songs for the Deaf—like great sex, it’s both an exhausting and magically restorative experience. I’ll probably get to Lullabies to Paralyze in the near future, but for now I just want to revel in the rediscovery of one of the few great rock albums of the 21st century.

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