Foo Fighters push their boundaries on USA-spanning 'Sonic Highways'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The latest Foo Fighters album has been promised as a patchwork, a scrapbook of American recording studios from coast to coast, with songs that were written specifically for each location. It’s the latest project from Dave Grohl, who now seems to be dead set on documenting all the great music that he grew up absorbing while spinning those influences into his own music.
That kind of ambition could sink a record in lesser hands. But as high as Grohl reaches, he meets every goal along the way. Rather than creating some sort of aural soundtrack of the United States, he’s crafted perhaps the definitive document in his band’s history.
As far as setting the mood, Sonic Highways starts with a bomb. “Something from Nothing” is a punisher, starting quietly and riding its own expertly placed dynamics to build to a pummeling crescendo. It’s quiet-loud-quiet turning to burning, with Grohl’s cathartic “fuck it all, I came from nothing” screaming out like a mission statement for the band, the project and his entire career, from DC punks Scream through Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age and all the pit stops in between.
While there are certainly influences of each city on their respective songs, it never overwhelms the album. “Congregation,” for example, isn’t loaded with Nashville’s fiddles or country pop sheen, but instead there’s a slight earthiness to the production. It really sounds more like a Goats Head Soup-esque approach than anything, but that’s because this isn’t a country band and the Foo Fighters aren’t playing dress-up. They’re simply allowing a new setting to inform the songs.
Through four episodes (as of this writing) of its companion HBO series, we’ve already caught references to Chicago’s city on fire, the Xs on Gary Clark Jr.’s hands and Nashville’s jukebox generation, among others. Those prompts have actually helped to give the writing a little more immediacy than they might have had otherwise, rather than feeling hokey or forced. Grohl pushed himself into the unfamiliar and came out fighting, and that comes through in the finished songs.
But even without the benefit of the episodes, some of the later songs reveal their influences. The low, heavy rumble of “Subterranean” is pure Seattle, while the punchy punk of “In the Clear” was clearly born in the hollering streets of New Orleans. The band was able to walk that line between callous and costume to really give the songs a chance to exist. Just as we’re our own people as well as being the products of our environments, the songs on Sonic Highways are great songs as well as being of a certain locale.
If Grohl were just our most enthusiastic and affable music fans, traveling the country shedding light on the stories of American music, he’d already be serving an important service. But his ability to channel all this through his own music, in a way that is certainly original and uniquely his, separates him from simply being a gifted documentarian. His natural passion for the music around him drives his own songs.
Grohl mentioned during the making of Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light that he had then hoped to make the band’s quintessential album, the record that fans could turn to and find everything they did well. That was a solid effort, but where the goal there was just to make the most Foo Fighter-y album yet, here the pushed margins helped the band reach further, and that goal is finally reached on Sonic Highways. The journey through the eight cities and recording venues gave the album vitality and give the listener context, but those listeners won’t always have the screeners or visuals with them when they’re listening.
They will have the record, though, and it’s one that shoots to the top of Foo Fighters’ surprisingly lofty cannon. Grohl has given all the music that came before him its due, and his answer to it all does it justice.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org