Dave Grohl's love letter to American music delivers few surprises but plenty of fist-pumping rock'n'roll
After 2011’s chart-topping ‘Wasting Light’ reaffirmed Foo Fighters’ status as one of the planet’s biggest bands after four years away, Dave Grohl realised that he had “licence to get weird” on its follow-up. “If we wanted,” he told Billboard in May, “we could make some crazy, bleak Radiohead record and freak everyone out. Then I thought, ‘Fuck that.’” Quelle surprise, you might say: whereas Grohl’s previous band were iconoclasts who tried to tear down the golden calf of classic rock-ism, the Foos have always seemed happy to embrace it. For their eighth album, they’ve done the most classic rock thing imaginable, recording each track in a different American city, using iconic studios where musical history – and other classic rock albums – were made, including Arlington’s Inner Ear (Minor Threat, Fugazi), New York’s Magic Shop (Ramones, Sonic Youth), and LA’s Rancho de la Luna (QOTSA, Arctic Monkeys).
That’s a nice pitch for the HBO travelogue documenting the recording process – which premiered last month on US TV – but its bearing on the songs themselves is pretty minimal. ‘Sonic Highways’ has been billed as a Kerouacian quest into the musical heart of America, but beyond the inherent Bono-ness of that idea, in its marrow, it remains a fairly orthodox Foo Fighters record. There are lyrical allusions to people and places (Muddy Waters, Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, Roky Erickson), and listening to the heart-on-sleeve bombast of ‘Congregation’ (recorded in Nashville, home of gospel) you can imagine Grohl’s voiceover earnestly explaining how music is a church and we’re all its congregation, but any exploration of the sounds of those people and places is mostly absent. When it comes to making music, location matters, but only up to a point, and ‘Sonic Highways’ can sometimes resemble a guidebook about a vast American cultural tapestry, related through the somewhat reductive medium of power chords.
Still, as a crowd-pleasing stadium-rock record, it largely delivers. ‘Something From Nothing’ is an archetypal lead single in the mould of ‘Best Of You’ or ‘The Pretender’, accelerating from slowburn introspection to Grohl’s eventual ursine roar of “Fuck it all, I came from nothing”. Elsewhere, the contemplative ‘Subterranean’ – recorded in the Seattle studio where the first Foo Fighters session took place in 1994 – finds him reflecting on the grunge era and his own anxieties about moving on from it. Best of all are ‘The Feast And The Famine’ – whose stop-start riff and Bowie-does-Dischord chorus kick like a particularly ornery mule – and the climactic ‘I Am A River’, one of those wilfully grandiose panoramas whose working title was probably always ‘Album Closer’.
At eight songs long, however, it’s not just the Foos’ shortest record, but in some ways their slightest. It may not be a ‘soundtrack album’ as such, but it seems oddly beholden to its central concept and the number of episodes in the accompanying TV series. When two of those songs – the meandering ‘Outside’ and the merely-perfunctory ‘In The Clear’ – feel like they’re marking time, you find yourself wishing they’d stopped off in Portland, Kansas City, San Francisco or any number of other locales that might’ve resulted in a few more tunes. The old proverb holds that it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts, but for ‘Sonic Highways’, it’s a little bit of both. While the journey isn’t quite as as spectacular as you’d hope, the destination is reassuringly familiar: Foo Fighters making fist-pumping rock’n’roll.