Album review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways
After recording their previous release, 2011’s thrilling Wasting Light, at the home of the frontman and guitarist Dave Grohl, the affable rockers Foo Fighters hit the road for a tour of eight of America’s great music cities to record the follow-up, Sonic Highways.
The brief was straightforward: spend time at the location, invite a local legend to the studio session and record whatever inspiration flows.
However, instead of fully engaging with the musical traditions of each city – from the jazz capital New Orleans to the country citadel of Nashville – their cultural riches have been refracted through the prism of what Foo Fighters are all about, which is emotive lyrics, cathartic choruses and barrelling riffs.
That said, the journeys have left some minor developments on the band’s sound – with only eight songs, Sonic Highways is certainly their leanest album yet and there are a few surprises on offer in both the melodies and song structure.
The opener, and Chicago tribute, Something From Nothing (featuring the Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen) is a case in point. At first listen it can sound like a messy hodgepodge of influences. But after a few airings one can hear some real craftsmanship at play as the track fluidly builds from a balladic introduction to a funky keyboard middle section, followed by a sparkling guitar solo from Nielsen before concluding in a squalling guitar storm with Grohl howling away.
The Nashville salute of Congregation is certainly no twanger, despite enlisting the services of the country-folk artist Zac Brown. The up-tempo track has Grohl’s screeching buffered by some smooth melodic riffs. The welcome surprise here is the hypnotic organ breakdown towards the end.
With all of the tracks averaging about five minutes, the album suffers from a few cases of overreach, the biggest of which is the two-part What Did I Do? / God As My Witness – an ominous warning of what a Foo Fighters rock opera could sound like.
Recorded in Texas with the guitarist Gary Clark Jr, the track is one half cheesy rocker and one half insufferable three-minute stadium refrain that will have you reaching for the skip button.
The focus returns towards the end with the lush acoustics of the Seattle-based Subterranean. Grohl here channels his inner-Bowie as he coos alongsidethe ghostly vocals of Death Cab for Cuties’s Ben Gibbard.
The Bowie connection continues in the finale with the New York goodbye of I Am a River, featuring The Duke’s long-time producer Tony Visconti on guitars and the singer-songwriter Kristeen Young. Their appearance here, however, is virtually indistinguishable as the track is really all about that towering anthemic chorus.
For all that Sonic Highways fails to represent America’s various music scenes, it succeeds in maintaining the relevance of the Foo Fighters. The album may not win them any new fans (as if they need any more), but it does display their genuine passion for America’s great rock tradition – and that is certainly something worth saluting.