This one comes to us from Caleb Stallings.

“Oh villain! Thou art condemned into everlasting redemption.”
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

My friends always laugh whenever I say, “That’s it! I’m quitting Twitter. I’m quitting social media. I’m quitting smartphones. I’m quitting it all!” I’ve melodramatically announced this countless times in the past few years, and I’ve followed through with it just a few. And, of course, I always end up coming back. It all starts as a desperate measure: the weight of the hoi polloi becomes unbearable, and so I look to cast off the fetters of our moral-outrage-of-the-week culture. The socio-political imperatives are ceaselessly shifting, and my feet always fail me when I chase after them. There are chants in front of me and declarations behind me. All of them claim to hold the objective lens to make sense of our mad, mad, mad, mad world. Everyone boasts the solutions to our local and global woes. And all of them are compelling…until none of them are. I am swayed back and forth by decent people who make claims that conflict with (and often vilify) all others. I try to take it all in until I just can’t take any of it anymore.

“I’m just one person, for God’s sake! I can’t care about all of this…” And then I make my escape into a neo-Luddite monasticism for a season. Maybe weeks. Maybe months. But then I return. Because I miss the jokes. I miss the news. I miss the people. But inevitably, I break down again. And the horrible cycle of despair, escape, and return begins anew.

But a strange and hopeful reprieve came to me recently from the red-headed, silver-toothed, desert crooner, Joshua Homme. If you’ve heard the name before, it may be from any number of musical endeavors: Kyuss, The Desert Sessions, Eagles of Death Metal, Them Crooked Vultures, Iggy Pop, and most notably, Queens of the Stone Age. The latter just released a new album entitled Villains, an iconoclastic marriage of sights and sounds. It’s Led Zeppelin with Dean Martin. It’s The Misfits with Cab Calloway. It’s the Devil went down to the dance floor lookin’ for a soul to steal. In short, it’s Joshua Homme. And he comes bearing the good news of a life of villainy:

“The title Villains isn’t a political statement… It’s simply…a comment on the three versions of every scenario: yours, mine, and what actually happened. Everyone needs someone or something to rail against—their villain—same as it ever was. In a world desperately going for “likes”, I think Villains is more like, “We’ll take the dislikes, we’ll take the outcasts.” The album is here to do bad guy stuff.”

Homme opens his arms wide, bidding world-weary souls like mine to jive away their sorrows. But what exactly is Homme calling those with ears to hear to rail against? In part, he’s denouncing the devalued commodity of escapism. “Queens has always been like an ice-cream parlor or a video arcade: it’s safe from the bullsh— of the day.” Villains, then, presents itself as a musical refuge in a time of political storm. It’s a disco-tech that can turn a dreary Monday morning into a crackling Saturday night. And with a get-up that features a burning cigarette, a pectoral cross, a leather jacket, and a devastatingly cool sense of swagger, Homme introduces himself to us as our villainous priest. The album opener, “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” acts as our call to worship. The track begins as a haunted choral arrangement before spinning out as a feverish disco confession:

Life is hard, that’s why no one survives
I’m much older than I thought I’d be
Feel like a fool, just like a dancing fool, yeah
Footloose and fancy free…

Me and my gang come to bust you loose
We move with an urgency
Between pleasure and agony, oh when we’re aligned
That’s the sound that’s calming me

Villains reflects Homme’s attempt to wed the sacred to the profane. Commenting on the sound of the new album, he says, “There’s no reason not to conjoin rock ’n’ roll and dance and hallelujah and darkness; all that in one thing.” This is a noticeable feature of the album’s first single and music video, “The Way You Used To Do.” The video acts as an homage to the swinging age of jazz with elaborate cathedral sets and shiny dance numbers. But it also winks at the shadowy origins of blues through Faustian pacts with the Devil and pentagram-waving ballerinas.

Is love mental disease or lucky fever dream?
Fine with either
Gave birth to monsters who will terrorize normalcy, yeah
They’ll terrorize

If the world exploded behind us
I never noticed if it done
Let nobody dare confine us
I’ll bury anyone who does

But it doesn’t matter now
Just come and love me how
Like the way you used to do

It plays both as a hymn of selfless love and devotion to his punk rock wife, Brody Dalle, and simultaneously as a Satanic capitulation: “Do as thou wilt, for that is the whole of the law.” This is the complicated nature of Homme’s music: both self-incriminating and self-absolving, all in one fell swoop. And he beckons us, too, to shuffle off the pressures to conform to an ordered society by becoming good villains instead. After all, the world is a wild beast, so why shouldn’t we be? Strangely, this is how Homme tries to serve the greater good: by freeing us from the shackles of despair so that we can escape into his anarchic bliss. He revels in his own dastardly version of simul justus et peccator; as rock’s own sanctified sinner and sinister saint.

Homme leans into the religious imagery on “Un-Reborn Again,” a 21st century version of the Jim Carrol Band’s “People Who Died.” He rattles off a litany of embittered young souls whose vices and addictions plunged them into death. But here, amongst other desolate places, the façade of the villain’s carefree life begins to crack and an outlandishly desperate hope is framed, “There’s gotta be somewhere to bury the pain // You can drink from the water before it’s been drained away.”

While the album is supposed to help us cavort our way into inglorious annihilation, it can’t truly escape the need for a just and ordered society. What else could Homme be doing here other than uttering moral proclamations? What else could he be rebelling against than the terrible consequences of rebellion? This subtle inclination towards justice can’t be ignored in Homme’s own bitter struggle against the monstrosity of the human condition.

In 2015, the Western world looked on with horror at the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan, a historic theatre in Paris where Homme’s band Eagles of Death Metal were performing. In the middle of a rousing show, gunfire erupted causing massive panic and ultimately claiming the lives of nearly one hundred attendees. Although Homme wasn’t with the band for that particular show, the emotional devastation and powerlessness he felt in its wake was palpable in subsequent interviews. Throughout and after the grievous tragedy, he remained reluctant to even acknowledge the matter. The evil was simply too close and too personal to discuss openly. After the harrowing massacre, he retreated into the California desert to find meaning and truth and returned to the world as a staunch “Now-ist.” In an interview with Jon Pareles of The New York Times, he comments, “I’m not going to wait. [My] willingness to take a risk is its own reward in this day and age.” “The Evil Has Landed” addresses this matter directly. With clever wordplay, he imbues the well-known political idiom, “the eagle has landed,” with a darkly subversive meaning. Instead of the bold arrival of the notably patriotic Eagle[s of Death Metal], the shadowy and sinister face of Evil arises in their place:

Going on a living spree
Plenty wanna come with me
You don’t wanna miss your chance
Near-life experience
Faces making noise
Say, be good girls and boys
It ain’t half empty or full
You can break the glass, or drink it all
Dig it

A glamour cabaret
The last float on parade
‘Cause their swing got left behind
Every puzzle piece of mind
Handshake in facade
Play the fool or playing God
Just for God’s sake play along
Well, you can have a laugh,
Hit it

These are indicative of the spirit of the entire album: a cynical shrug and a black laugh at both those who play the fool and those who play God. The highway to Hell is paved with good (and bad) intentions, so for God’s sake, play along. As the album draws to a close with “Villains of Circumstance,” Homme finally seems to abandon his own project by pivoting to a somber lament in the face of a devastating nihilism:

I miss you now, what’s come over me?
We’re hostages of geography
The wait is long, and heavy too
Despite what you’re accustomed to
I know that life moves on, that’s what scares me so
Have no intentions of letting go..

There’s no magic bullet, no cure for pain
What’s done is done, ’til you do it again
Life in pursuit of a nameless prey
I’ve been so close, I’m so far away
It’s so hard to explain, so easy to feel
I need you now, nothing is real
Save me from the villains of circumstance
Before I lose my place

At the beginning, I included a Shakespearean quote with the kind of clever wordplay I know Homme would dig. In Fleming Rutledge’s masterful tome, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, she opens her chapter on justice with it. She points out how Shakespeare employs it ironically to underline the absurd clashing of worlds: condemnation and redemption. In the play, the line is clearly meant as a joke, but the theological implications are deadly serious. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this while listening to Villains. Although Homme’s intent is to offer a carefree respite from the insanity of our bad-news-saturated world, he actually just intensifies our experience of it. Fleeing from this insanity just means being controlled by it; being enslaved to it. But although true freedom eludes us, we still glimpse it through a glass darkly. “Head Like a Haunted House” elucidates:

I’m gonna put up a fight
I’m gonna get a reaction that I’m right
From the day
A rectangular space
I demand satisfaction, ooh ooh
For the night

Bands like Queens of the Stone Age help us to unmask this Evil Age. And albums like Villains help us discover that the world is a monster because we all are. But doubling down on villainy doesn’t alleviate the searing pain of life and death; it only amplifies it. Herein lies the glory of the Christian Gospel as all other narratives fail: that Jesus became the Villain so that we might become saints. “The condemnation of Jesus means redemption for the world,” Rutledge writes, “The cross of Christ is the place where we see most clearly the relationship between judgment (condemnation, destruction) and the righteousness of God (experienced both as judgment and as redemption).” Homme’s use of monsters and villains is rightly oriented, but nowhere near radical enough. Rutledge continues, “Even more astonishingly, however, [Jesus] underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators.”

I can’t help but believe that Homme would be unburdened if he ever encountered this reality for what it is. Instead of having to sweep the brutality of life under the proverbial rug, the Gospel absorbs it and breaks its curse. No longer are we only villains, crushed by the cosmos and scattered by time. Now we are saints: forgiven beasts, ever loved by the One who died as a Villain in our place. Or as Homme sings in final triumph, “Forever mine, I’ll be forever yours // Always, evermore, and on and on.”