To mark the 20th anniversary of the Foo Fighters, ask Dave Grohl reaffirmed his ambition and status in pop culture by using a creative strategy to gather interest for their new album. Sonic Highways is accompanied by a HBO series of the same name, directed by Grohl. Each track corresponds to an episode which focuses on a city and its musical history. The tracks contain guest musicians from these cities and are said to include musical influences from them too. It all sounds a little overblown but the documentaries are immaculately drawn together with inputs from a number of legends including Willie Nelson and Steve Albini.
Given the immensity of this project, the album comes off as something of a side course and this may explain its shortage of quality. While they have been reluctant to explore different genres or venture away from their comfort zone, the Foo Fighters have been at least reliable for churning out records awash with fist-pumping rock anthems. None of these eight songs have the same feel-good charm as earlier hits such as ‘Times like These’ and ‘Monkey Wrench’. The opener, ‘Something From Nothing’, fools us into thinking that Grohl & co. are heading down a curious path with Rick Nielsen’s baritone guitar and an unexpected funky organ groove interlude. It serves as easily the most adventurous piece on the album, getting bigger and bigger as it progresses into an epic climax. But ‘The Feast and the Famine’ epitomises the Foo Fighters trademark sound over the last two decades with surging guitars and Grohl’s distinctive growl.
Elsewhere, we hear some of the most laboured and lacklustre material that the Foo Fighters have produced. The two-part, ‘What Did I Do/God Is My Witness’ tosses and turns between miserable balladry and heavy guitar-driven rock before finishing with a near-painful refrain with Grohl bellowing – ‘God is my witness, yeah it’s gonna heal my soul tonight’. Nothing from the Foo’s catalogue has sounded so corny and contrived. The grandiose curtain raiser ‘I Am a River’ has the ‘album closer’ label written all over it. It’s a jubilant but self-indulgent finale and the hugeness of it feels unwarranted because of the lack of substance preceding it.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Sonic Highways is the fact that it feels like such a separate entity from the documentaries. The musical styles that Grohl incorporates into these tracks are so minimal that they will go straight over the average listener’s head. Some twangy Southern guitar hooks are heard on the Nashville-based ‘Congregation’ but the geographical anonymity ooms large over the album as a whole. Most of the guest spots may as well have been non-existent, often coming in the form of backing vocals or undistinguished guitar solos.
Dave Grohl’s musical map of America, seen in the four episodes of Sonic Highways that have surfaced so far, is both an insightful and visual treat. But in the album, the Foo Fighters don’t take a musical journey through America but rather continue to travel down the same bloated and self important road that they have for the past twenty years.
By Adam Bielenberg