Over the Memorial Day weekend I was chatting with friends about favorite albums, and what became apparent to me, though I hadn’t quite realized the degree of it before, is my deep affection for Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R, which, coincidentally, is celebrating the fourteenth anniversary of its release on June 6th. Though other of their albums are indispensable, Rated R is their magnum opus, a tightly focused forty minutes of drug-fueled rock ‘n roll that navigates a broad sonic soundscape, an arsenal of narcotics, and an indictment of censorship.
Josh Homme’s twisted sense of humor is what makes this album special, opening the album with the chemical manifesto of “FeelGood Hit of the Summer”, a tune that features a repetitious yet syncopated rhythm while Homme rattles off a list of his favorite drugs: “nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol – cocaine”. It’s a fitting song from a pioneer of “stoner rock”, a label Homme detests, and so this exercise in explicit drug use must be understood as a middle finger raised to music critics that have pigeon-holed his craft as drug rock, implying that he and his audience must be high to listen to such music. “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” is thus a satirical take on what “stoner rock” must be; as Homme, in a sense, argues “this is stoner rock, I don’t play stoner rock”.
Feel Good leads into the dark pop of “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret”, a piece in which Homme disavows blatant drug promotion as was seen in Feel Good, arguing that no one should know how high he feels, and that the meanings of such drug songs will never be explicit, as, “I’m taking our song to the grave”.
And Homme is true to his word, with the remainder of the songs on the album being about the affects of drug use, but veiled in metaphor. “Leg of Lamb” is the story of a depraved heroin binge in a hotel room. “Autopilot” is about the zombie-state of an addict in their one-track mind obsession with drugs and alcohol. “Better Living Through Chemistry” poses the question of whether persons who use illegal narcotics are much different from persons who medicate with anti-depressants and pain killers,
depicting the pharmacological fireworks of the highs, and cold burn of the lows . “Monsters in the Parasol” is about an LSD trip with surreal hallucinations over a disco-punk rhythm. “Quick and to the Pointless” is about the thrill of getting the drugs one craves, with the over-stimulated Nick Oliveri taking the vocals. Mark Lanegan sings the eerie manifesto of a hedonist confronted with the reality of his life-shortening choices in “In the Fade”. “Tension Head” is a gritty depiction of withdrawal and desperation, with the frantic Oliveri on vocals again. “Lightning Song” is an acoustic instrumental that provides a breather after the intensity of “Tension Head”, but one can imagine this piece as a depiction of coming back to feeling like oneself after a long binge. The phenomenal “I Think I Lost My Headache” closes the album, capturing the paranoia and alienation brought about by drugs.
Homme’s project in Rated R seems to be one of pointing out the common human drive of altering one’s consciousness, arguing that getting high in some way is just a basic part of everyday life. As a result, it is a mistake to understand Rated R, and albums like it, as “drug albums”, as this is to marginalize the mundane in a way that presents what is normal as depraved and worthy of censor. Thus, for critics to label his music “stoner rock” is akin to censorship, as it dismisses art as smut, and personal choices as moral vices.
Rated R is thus Homme’s rock n’ roll manifesto, delivered with an ironic smirk, challenging critics to understand his music as artful depictions of the hedonistic human experience without using the stigmatizing label of “stoner rock”, a label which dismisses the blunt force of the existential conflict between nihilism and hedonism at play in his writing.