Dave et al. really pulled out all the stops making Sonic Highways. The band spent months crisscrossing the USA, recording each track in a different city of musical significance, leaching minerals from the cornerstones of American rock and hosting a prominent guest or two in the process. The album even arrived on the heels of an accompanying TV series – a travelogue documenting the recording process – but despite such an epic excursion and such arduous architecture, the influence of the cities respective heritages is, all in all, pretty minimal on the album’s tracks, and the result is a Foos album that lacks its own identity, perhaps as a result of trying too hard to give it one.
This approach to making the 8th Foos LP differs dramatically from 2011’s Wasting Light, where the entirety was laid down in Grohl’s own gaff, but there is a recurring theme that seems to have cropped up with their last 3 releases. 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace was teased with the dropping of The Pretender; a brilliant build up of urgency and aggression that tantalized the palettes of Foos fans, before the band delivered an absolute wet lettuce of an LP. The first snippet of Wasting Light was the furious White Limo, recalling the Wattersheds and Weenie Beenies of old, before the LP itself, although decent enough in parts, didn’t ever threaten to scale the bar set in the first instance. Again, this time in 2014, we found ourselves salivating over the powerful accumulator (and Sonic Highways’ opening track) Something From Nothing, and again, although again there are some moments of quality in this record, the expectations were raised too high once again.
The record is by far the leanest piece of work ticked off as finished by the band, weighing in as a relative bantamweight at only 8 tracks long (and one of them is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard). Once the storm that is Something From Nothing has built-up, picked up speed and destroyed all in its path, another of the record’s stronger moments explodes out of the block. The Feast and The Famine boasts a stop/start riff off breakneck speed, as spiky as it is well-groomed, and delivers a pummelling chorus that could have easily shuffled into the track list of The Colour and the Shape without anyone noticing. Grohl’s vocals do not falter, with the enigmatic frontman going from strength to strength with the kind of fearsome grit that you can scarcely believe was perched behind a drumkit until 2 decades ago.
Congregation passes by, threatening to administer a fatal dose of dad-rock before What Did I Do? / God As My Witness pleads with you to skip to the next track (this must be by far the worst song Grohl has ever written, and is the aforementioned contender for worst song ever heard). Outside is promising, sounding fresher and boasting a more effective formula than the mid-album tracks that the Foos have dropped over the past few releases. In The Clear follows, and is nothing more than Foo Fighters on auto-pilot. The album does however finish at least as strongly as it started. Subterranean is the track recorded in Seattle, and perhaps the most intriguing proposition on the album, with the potential to be a messier moment, perhaps with the help of Krist Novoselic. However, Dave throws a curveball, enlisting the assistance of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, who supplies backing vocals and guitars to a sparkling, climatic penultimate track. Closing track I Am A River is a block of overstated gasconade that the Foos get away with, and a relatively decent way to bookend an album that could, for many parts, do with a road map.
Despite not having the sure identity of the debut self-titled or The Colour and The Shape, the album is unmistakably Foo Fighters. Their world-famous brand of stadium rock is still garnished with honking cheese and revolting dad-rock, but with small enough amounts to just about get away with it. With Sonic Highways, though, the high points and overall cohesion of the record is punctuated all too bluntly by a couple of tracks written in cruise control, and one 20-car pile-up that we will not name again. Grohl and Co. have celebrated the veins of American rock music from coast to coast, but their fear of over-administering each city’s sonic roots into their own blueprint has hindered the progression of Sonic Highways into a cohesive unit, and instead resulted in a challenging listen. 52%.
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