“You see Kanye go all Trent Reznor on SNL?” my friend texted me last month. I hadn’t but I could just imagine it: Kanye in black leather stomping around to distorted beats and screaming. As a follower of Saul Williams on Twitter, I watched a flood of his fans ask things like, “So you think Kanye just heard Niggytardust?” an album produced by Trent Reznor that saw Williams, a hip-hop poet, go all glam-industrial. So I wasn’t surprised when I finally got a hold of Yeezus and finally heard for myself that Kanye had, indeed, hurt himself today to see if he could still feel; he focused on the pain, the only thing that is real.
It was less a surprise than an unfortunate eventuality. Kanye, like Reznor was in his heyday, is a rich, studio-obsessed misogynist with a god complex. If the 1990s hadn’t happened, Yeezus would be some sort of magnificent rebellious statement, but instead it feels like West picked up “Industrial Hits of the ’90s” in a discount bin and decided to try it on. It doesn’t help that West’s lyrics are as cartoonish and disconnected from reality as anything Reznor ever wrote.
“I am a god/So hurry up with my damn massage/In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants/I am a God,” West snarls on “I Am a God.”
Can you actually crucify someone with a croissant? Kanye feels like a grown man in his terrible twos—desperate to get someone to pay attention. It must hurt for him but it makes everyone else in the room snicker.
What is shocking is West’s gross misogynism on tracks like “I’m In It” where he raps, “Black girl sipping white wine, put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” Later, on the album’s best track “Blood on the Leaves,” West samples Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching, and whines about a woman doing him wrong.
Kanye has balls but he has no idea what he is using them for—just ask Kim Kardashian.
Queens of the Stone Age
. . . Like Clockwork
Speaking of Reznor, he shows up to what is perhaps the best summer party of the year on Queens of the Stone Age’s . . . Like Clockwork. Like West, QOTSTA’s Josh Homme is a bit of a creep, a bar slut and an attention whore. Queens’ first three albums were so successful because Homme had something to write about—his stint in legendary stoner-rock band Kyuss and their long drives in the desert where they would play generator shows in the middle of nowhere. Homme also surrounded himself with amazing talent—Nick Oliveri’s incensed bass playing and demon scream offset Homme’s crooner’s sensibilities. Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees brought a vocal depth and seriousness that Homme lacked and, on the group’s best disc, Songs for the Deaf, Dave Grohl gave the group the kind of propulsion they needed to sell their speed-driven, desert-scoundrel vibe.
Homme minimized the involvement of his crew on Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris and was left trying to recapture past glories. A funny thing happened to Homme on the way to recording the group’s latest disc—he died. A routine knee operation went wrong and Homme suffocated, his heart stopped and doctors had to revive him. He almost lost his punk-rock love, Brody Dalle, and their two children; he almost lost the ability to get paid to travel the world making the sleaziest desert rock money can buy.
So the band got back together and . . . Like Clockwork makes good on the band’s promise while taking the band to heights it never previously aspired to. Now, with something to say, feeling real loss, Homme creates a concept album about helplessness, about what is worth living for and why it hurts to lose it. From the operating table to the twisted dreams that followed, Homme takes listeners on a tour that is full of bandages, hallucinations, slowing heartbeats and fear.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some sweet singles on . . . Like Clockwork. “I Sat by the Ocean” and “My God Is the Sun” are the acid-soaked rockers that made the band a radio-staple, but this disc is really cemented by the dirty swagger of “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” “Kalopsia,” and “If I Had a Tail,” which sounds like Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” updated for the surveillance state.
The darkness gives way on “Smooth Sailing,” where Homme throws off the shroud of death and remembers who he is. “Make a mountain out of a molehill if that molehill is mine,”
Homme sings like an inebriated Thin White Duke before adding, “I blow my load over the status quo!” The song ends with a crash and then sadness returns for the albums piece de resistance, ”I Appear Missing.” ”Shock me awake/Tear me apart/Pinned like a note in a hospital gown/Prison of sleep/Deepened now,” Homme sings over a funeral dirge.
. . . Like Clockwork is a difficult album. But, above all things, it is an album that should be heard as a whole.
These New Puritans
Field of Reeds
Looking for something without all that pomp and circumstance? Field of Reeds is this year’s biggest musical surprise. These New Puritans, known for their thumping percussion, post-punk beatscapes and anxious delivery, have basically cleansed themselves of any percussion at all. What’s left is mostly strings and horns that swell and swarm around Jack Barnett’s intimate moan. The disc feels simultaneously ethereal and heavy as an anchor. “Fragment Two” lumbers ahead with a non-techo Kid A feel, all pianos and strings as Barnett signs about the stars. It’s haunting and heavy. But, as the album opens up, the sense of weight lifts on “Organ Eternal,” a sci-fi snyth run. A trance builds until finally an alien squawk peirces the riff, new and curious. It’s eerie and soul-wrenching. It’s also confusing because These New Puritans have found a line directly to the heart while significantly stripping down their once-overwhelming compositions. What is left is not to be missed.