“Something For Nothing” was worth getting excited about: a Foo Fighters single that felt urgent but not transitory, weighty but not tedious, timely but not beholden to the moment. Dave Grohl had delivered a lesson in proper grown up rock music that, despite his phenomenal success, few thought him capable. Sonic Highways (the HBO documentary that sees the Foos writing songs inspired by America’s great musical capitals) couldn’t have asked for a better teaser.
The eight-part series is well worth a watch for music obsessives who want to see the Foos’ creative cogs in motion while hearing icons of the past explain how something as big, abstract and diverse as a city can inspire great art. It’s easy to see why producers Stateside would green light the project. It sounds fascinating: eight songs, eight cities and more superstar guests than you can shake a stick at. The trouble is, Sonic Highways, the album, feels entirely arbitrary.
All the cool stories and interesting insights of the television series are stripped away and eight rather anonymous efforts remain. The Foos wisely decide not to attempt to mimic the sound of each city. There are no banjos to represent Nashville and no wonky blues for New Orleans. Each track is Foo Fighters through-and-through and what could have been a disparate mess remains pleasingly cohesive. There are guests and some are more impactful than others (Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen offers a rip roaring turn on baritone guitar during “Something For Nothing” and Gary Clark Jnr. provides a masterful, unshowy, lead on “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness”).
Unfortunately, while the Foos have avoided creating a hideous misshapen monster of half-understood sounds and butchered cultures; they’ve struggled to assert much of anything in its stead. The burden of representing each city falls on Dave Grohl’s lyricism. He accomplishes this feat with an array of not-entirely-subtle lyrical nods and by embracing a severity of tone. The Foos actively try to pen thoughtful (dare I say) adult music. Unfortunately, there appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding taking place: Dave Grohl is trying exceedingly hard to write great music instead of big hits, without realizing that the Foos’ most timeless efforts are their most riotously accessible singles.
Sonic Highways’ high concept efforts tend to take the form of furrow browed album tracks like “Outside”, which try to project a stately air but end up sounding dreary and buttoned down. This is a shame, because, while the songs might feel pedestrian and straight jacketed by their own pretentions, the guitar work is full of life and invention.
The Foos’ palette has broadened significantly adding, not only 70s accents, but the confidence to embrace the drift and allow their instrumentals to occupy and engender atmosphere in wide-open spaces. “Subterranean” is a deftly judged mood piece where the influence of the Death Cab For Cutie/The Postal Service star Ben Gibbard is immediately apparent. “God As My Witness” is a similar triumph: a Beatles-with-added-beef arrangement that exudes a sense of closure and grand-interstellar-climax as the Foos defiantly put grand sentiment before quick-fire hooks.
Sonic Highways hasn’t taken the Foo Fighters to the promised land. They are still primarily a larger-than-life rock band, rather than the kind of essential artists who define generations and make the musical weather. However, this somewhat disappointing album might be the first step towards newfound relevance and much desired importance. The Foo Fighters have eschewed angst, foresworn their repression/release strictures and embraced high concept with less-than-stellar results. With any luck they will have acquired a few potentially game changing tricks in the process.
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