Sonic Highways is based around a high-concept idea, but the result is an affirmation of the Foo Fighters' core appeal.
Somewhere along the line (I’d peg it around 2005) the Foo Fighters became A-level standard bearers of loud rock. Blood-pumping, fist-clenching, life-affirming rock, the Foos have long since perfected their ability to craft and deliver it, though the trade-off in hindsight has been an increasing generic character. The Foo Fighters are now essentially the AC/DC of alternative rock. While they occasionally still offer up songs that stretch their established sonic parameters -- “Rope”, the lead single from their last album Wasting Light, couldn’t be mistaken for anything else in their songbook, for instance -- their most recent records have been largely known quantities that were comforting in their consistency.
Where does that leave Sonic Highways? For starters, if you were waiting for a new Foo Fighters album, you’ve certainly got a new Foo Fighters album. Despite the gimmick behind it (each of its eight tracks were recorded in a different American city and recorded with native musicians and/or producers, as documented in a companion television series currently airing on HBO), Sonic Highways doesn’t really distinguish itself from any other Foo Fighters releases. Its hooks are nowhere near as memorable as those of even latter-day Foos megahits “Best of You” and “The Pretender” -- tellingly, the most memorable riff found on the entire record largely sticks out due to its similarity to Dio’s “Holy Diver”. If you asked someone to give you “a Foo Fighters CD” with no further elaboration beyond those words, this is theoretically the disc you should receive.
By no means does that mean Sonic Highways is an unremarkable write-off. A rebuttal can be drawn from that aforementioned consistency level: while it’s all terribly familiar, it also consistently delivers the goods. You want something sweet to rock out to? Request granted! No, there’s nothing really wrong with the songs of Sonic Highways, unless one applies some metric like “Are they instantly identifiable as ‘My Hero’ is?” to them, a criteria which is admittedly unfair. The weakest part of album opener/first single “Something for Nothing” is actually when its Dio-copping riff shows up. It’s an awkward distraction which interrupts a carefully curated build-up from a forlorn Beatles-by-way-of-Electric Light Orchestra intro onto the introduction of the Foos’ familiar brawny guitars. The song reasserts its footing when reaches its inevitable “Dave Grohl raises his voice and screams hoarsely” moment of catharsis, and it actually finds a proper home for its faux-“Holy Diver” riff as part of its driving conclusion.
It’s Grohl and his bandmates’ execution of these songs that makes Sonic Highways a worthy listen. No matter what city or in which studio the tracks were recorded in, the band members’ love of making music -- for its own sake, to entertain an audience, and with each other -- is palpable. It can be heard in “Congregation”, the band’s latest serving of the soaring wanderlust previously embodied by “Learn to Fly” and “Walk”. It’s certainly felt in “The Feast and the Famine” and “Outside” (the latter featuring the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, of all people), two bracing rockers whose repetitive tendencies do nothing to hamper the allure of their propulsive momentum. Of all the album’s cuts, “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness” is the one most accurately termed “fun”. It’s frankly a lark, one whose multi-section structure allows the band to perform a gospel-tinged opening -- belabored piano chords lovingly applied -- and then veer off into bouncy power-pop rhythms. By song’s end, the track has ballooned into an AOR showpiece reminiscent of Queen in that band’s full ‘70s pomp. It’s a better realized spectacle than the album’s closing pairing of “Subterranean” and “I Am a River”, two admirably orchestrated numbers that nevertheless overstay their welcomes.
Though it may falter a bit at the end, Sonic Highways should be counted as a success. Even for those who haven’t watched the Sonic Highways series to see the Foos explore and enthuse about the sounds they love and that made them who they are, the album itself captures and conveys the joy, the community, and the solace music can foster. Indeed, “Subterranean” is as languid as it is precisely because it’s a balming song about one of the lowest points in Dave Grohl’s life, the months following Kurt Cobain’s death that ultimately culminated in the former Nirvana drummer’s return to making music and his creation of the Foo Fighters. Music has done a lot for Grohl and the rest of his band, and they want to share those virtues with everyone. Luckily for us, it’s usually done in the form of head-nodding, finger-tapping, knee jittering rock. Sonic Highways doesn’t break new ground, but for those accustomed to these five guys’ wares, it’ll suffice when they desire a concise reaffirmation of what makes them appealing in the first place.