Happy Halloween! Here’s the latest installment in my annual(ish) Spooky Season mix series. As always, the real monster…is capitalism.
Hello! Did everyone watch Chair Game Show this weekend? How ’bout them Storks(?)
I’m in the process of getting Baby’s First Tat – not literally right now, still working on the design, etc. – but, in anticipation of the event, I put together a playlist! It’s the in-store soundtrack to the imaginary cool tattoo parlor of my dreams. Share and enjoy.
This morning, like a lot of mornings, I woke up with a migraine. For the past six years or so, I’ve had what’s known as chronic migraine, a condition whereby one gets really frequent, persistent migraines for reasons no one completely understands. It’s had a huge impact on my life, personally and professionally, and it’s a big factor in why I don’t write as much as I used to. But I’m trying to turn that around, so today I’m going share my favorite album to listen to when I’m convalescing. It’s probably not on anyone else’s list of “soothing albums for hurty heads,” but for me, I swear it has healing powers.
Era Vulgaris, the fifth Queens of the Stone Age album, came out in 2007 to a mixed reception. Era was the first QOTSA album made entirely without founding band member Nick Oliveri, who was fired in 2004 under a cloud of ill will that included domestic abuse allegations (Oliveri later narrowly avoided jail time on similar charges.) The band needed a clean slate, and Era was the caustic agent to get the job done.
In a review for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield praised Era‘s hard-driving, unhinged atmosphere, “clobbering you instantly with guitars louder and uglier than a psychedelic biker party at Joshua Tree’s Skull Rock.” Era Vulgaris is a harsh, moody record littered with jagged edges. It radiates a confrontational “Are you in or out?” attitude that feels tailored to needle fans of accessible, Oliveri-penned jams like “Auto Pilot.” In album opener “Turnin on the Screw,” Homme solemnly intones, “I sound like this,” and proceeds to rip through a gnarly, atonal guitar solo that drops like a punch line.
I heard Era Vulgaris for the first time in 2017 during a particularly surreal summer, health-wise. Without going into too much detail, both my health and my mood were unusually unstable, and I was struggling to stay afloat. Casting around for whatever lifeline I could find, I landed on the kind of music that, a few years earlier, I would have dismissed as “Big Mood stadium rock.” I felt like I was fighting for my sanity, and heavy rock gave me the tools to render the invisible battle more concrete.
Pain isn’t subtle, and neither is Era Vulgaris. It’s a big, defiant “fuck you” of an album, but it’s also a “fuck me.” Take, for example, the revved-up, percussive skronk of “Battery Acid,” an excellent sonic analogue to the throbbing pain of a migraine if ever there was one. If you ask most people what the song is about, the likely answer is “drugs.” But its themes of helplessness and self-recrimination translate surprisingly well to other form of war against a malfunctioning mind:
“There’s nothing you can say / You can’t wish me away / Every masochist gets a turn / Sadistic twist- you never learn.”
When you spend a lot of time living with the excruciating but weirdly rootless pain of migraine, you start to wonder if it’s “all in your head.” There’s a creeping sense of unreality that comes with chronic pain, which defies the usual bodily laws of cause and effect. You start to doubt every decision you’ve made that led you to where you are, wondering if somehow it’s all your fault.
Homme probably wasn’t thinking about literal, physical pain when he wrote the line “I don’t care if it hurts, just so long as it’s real,” nor actual bodily frailty when he sang “I’m so goddamn sick, baby, it’s a sin.” But as a listener, you’re allowed to take from music whatever you need at the time. These were lyrics I could sing along to and mean it.
In some ways, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I have a good team of doctors, a supportive family, access to therapy, a day job and health insurance. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve been able to find medications that help quell the worst of my symptoms without triggering the kind of addictive spiral that people with chronic pain are especially vulnerable to. The trade-off is I have to live with a certain amount of pain, and pain, quite literally, sucks. Pain will suck the life out of you, if you let it. It’s easy to lose perspective and find yourself mired in despair that things will ever get better.
When you’re going through something miserable, good art can be a mirror with which to see yourself more clearly. In the brain, physical and mental pain have surprisingly similar mechanisms. Beating myself up, doubting myself, isolating myself, trying to keep my pain under wraps- these things weren’t helping me get better. Era Vulgaris helped me to recognize that.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say why music does what it does. Maybe the narrative I’ve built around Era Vulgaris doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. Maybe there’s just something about the particular timbre of Homme’s guitar that resonates deeply with my ailing brain. Some people have crystals, magnets and aromatherapy. I have Queens of the Stone Age.