Elaborate double disc combining quiet acoustics and hard rock, but has Dave Grohl stretched himself too far?
‘Workmanlike’ is a word often used by idiot journalists to describe boring musicians. It implies a sturdy rudder but a lack of excitement or drama. A bit like calling a builder “a bit too punk rock” (notwithstanding the fact that most labourers you meet could ingest most rock stars under the table when it comes to Class As, but we digress).
Well, I am not an idiot (I’m barely a journalist for that matter) and Dave Grohl is not boring. But he is the most all-American of all all-American rock stars. And the good part of America is a place built on a Protestant work ethic and values of trust, reliability and graft, like the lumberjacks, whose keyword – in this old America that probably never even existed – is honour. Everybody loves Dave because he’s rock’s most honourable man. Uncle Dave, always on hand to bring some good out of the demise of your generation’s greatest band, always willing to kick-start your career with a guest spot behind the drum stool, always ready with a toothy reassurance of the redemptive power of rock’n’roll.
This all-encompassing good blokedom, though, has always manifested itself as an accessory to the genius of others; there’s never been much danger of Grohl walking the highwire of dangerous genius while fronting his own, all-American, workmanlike rock band. He’s been in one of those bands before, remember, and it ended in misery and suicide.
And as Dave told NME a few weeks ago, it was never part of the Foo Fighters game plan to end up in Planet Rock’s premier league, either. In Dave’s head this is the same band that began as the few demos that he threw together while bored in the fall-out from Nirvana. Over the years, the line-up has stabilised into guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and, of course, everybody’s favourite peroxide party lieutenant, Taylor Hawkins on drums. Sure, they’ve happened upon a few pan-generational anthems along the way, the best of which being ‘Everlong’ from 1997’s ‘The Colour And The Shape’, a song so preternaturally uplifting that I want it at my wedding and funeral. But Dave remains fully aware that his place in history remains as a drummer, proved post-Nirvana by electrifying stints with Queens Of The Stone Age, Garbage and Nine Inch Nails. Both of those factors have meant the guy has become a demigod; and when he found himself headlining Reading for the second time, it forced a rethink.
“It was amazing how popular we’d become. We’d reached a level and it meant something,” he said. In other words, Dave’s decided he wants a piece of the pie in his own right. And who on God’s earth could blame him?
‘In Your Honour’ sets out to blow apart the perception of Foo Fighters as a glorified side-project in the same way that ‘American Idiot’ destroyed the notion that Green Day were thick. And Dave has done such a great PR job of talking up this record as ‘definitive’ that there’s a heftier weight of expectation surrounding it than any record he’s been involved in since ‘In Utero’.
Everything about ‘In Your Honour’ is over the top. For starters they built their own 8,000 square-foot warehouse. Next they decided to use it to make that most preposterous of labours, a double album, one half formed from their heaviest metal, the other an acoustic disc so slight that it’s barely even there. No more mixing of messages. This is where they have become great.
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Things begin terrifically, as the opening title track roars in on a tidal wave of thunderclaps and spooky treble pangs. The first striking thing is a ten-fold mark-up in Dave’s vocals, now bloodcurdling, clearly informed by working with Lemmy on the Probot project of collaborations with the legends of heavy metal. Unfortunately, things come a little unstuck because Dave’s casting as God means that he can’t do evil. ‘DOA’’s thunderous chorus of “It’s a shame we have to die my dear/No-one’s getting out of here aliiiiiiive!” sounds less like a madman brandishing a suicide pact than somebody who would calmly order everybody out of the burning building in single file, without panic, before maybe doing a few tricks on some loaves in case the trauma has made everybody a bit peckish.
This may be the Foo Fighters gone metal but it’s more Hawkwind than Slayer and the best bits, actually, are where they revert to type; the new-wavish ‘DOA’, the chest-beating ‘The Last Song’ and the old-time romance of ‘The Deepest Blues Are Black’. The all-out aggressive moments, most notably single ‘Best Of You’, end up falling flat, and while the bonkers ‘Free Me’ might be the cleverest thing they’ve ever put their name to, it gets lost on a record that sounds like the band are racing through so they can start work on Disc Two a bit quicker.
It’s the quiet half that really makes you point and look. We’ve been here before of course, their starting point clearly being the solemn ‘Walking After You’, again from ‘The Colour And The Shape’. And there was a lone moment of sublime contemplation that really did deserve a revisit. Here, finally, is the sound of a band pushing themselves, in its very restraint. If you were in Foo Fighters, it really must be difficult to resist the temptation to rock out with your cock out, but they manage it here.
Opener ‘Still’ wafts in on a cushion of opium reverb and its feet never quite touch the ground; it’s apparently the tale of a teenage suicide Grohl witnessed back in Virginia at the age of ten. Already you get the feeling that after having a rip-roaring good time of the rock half, this is actually the new Foo Fighters album. The seriousness continues on ‘Friend Of A Friend’, a harrowing story of wasted youth that dates back to Grohl’s earliest days in Nirvana. But there’s light as well: Taylor Hawkins, the band’s resident funboy, gets a go at fronting the band on the zippy, handclappy ‘Cold Day In The Sun’, the closest cousin of vintage acoustic Foos tracks like ‘Big Me’. But most striking of all is the fabled Norah Jones collaboration ‘Virginia Moon’, a lilting bossa nova smooch that’s all the more lovely for being played totally straight.
Dave wanted this to be remembered as the definitive Foo Fighters album. Well, we’re afraid that one’s still ‘The Colour And The Shape’. ‘In Your Honour’, on the other hand, feels a bit like your bedroom partner trying on all kinds of flash costumes and gadgets to try and excite you, and the realisation that it wasn’t really necessary and they wouldn’t have had to bother had you just shown them a little more love in the first place. But then you still have a rip-roaring session anyway, even if you do now have to live with the image of your girlfriend having the face of Dave Grohl.
There is a ten-on-ten single album lurking somewhere within this record’s mammoth tracklisting but even that wouldn’t be the sort of Green Day-style reinvention that silly us were expecting; because you don’t want that from Foo Fighters. Like New Order or the post-Richey Manics, they’ve always been the sound of survival, and survival is a dependable, workmanlike thing that, just like Uncle Dave, is never supposed to be too dangerous. At least when he isn’t behind the drumstool, Grohl is never going to make your spine do somersaults and you wouldn’t want him to. The guy that once did that – his mate, our Messiah – is dead. Instead, Grohl can rest easy simply being the everyman. ‘In Your Honour’ is fine, but Dave didn’t need to try being superhuman, because there goes my hero: he’s ordinary.