The Foo Fighters haven’t really varied their sound over the past—oh, let’s say 20 years, essentially sticking with this pseudo minimalist, oh-so grunge aesthetic that overvalues distorted, muddled sounds, and frontman Dave Grohl’s tried and true whisper-and-then-shout technique. Their new album, “Sonic Highways,” doesn’t vary up the formula. You can tell that The Foo Fighters are trying to have their audiences waving lighters around on almost all their efforts on this album, but, as it turns out, crescendos lose their effectiveness if they’re the crux of every single song on “Sonic Highways.”
The Foo Fighters seem to be somewhat aware of their formulaic approach—they’re at least trying to vary up their offerings. But god forbid they do something crazy, like experiment sonically or attempt tonal variation. No, they’re doing the sensible thing—adding a gimmick to each album. For “Wasted Light,” their previous effort, it was the idea of a homecoming—of having an album that was to sound, according to Grohl, “like it was recorded in a house.” (Spoiler: it didn’t.) This time, it’s the idea of a rollicking, rock-and-roll road trip, with The Foo Fighters traveling to eight different U.S. cities and recording one song in each—as chronicled in the Dave Grohl-directed HBO miniseries, “Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways.” The album drives this point home with remarkable subtlety, the cover art very definitely not depicting a giant “8” nestled into the middle of a city landscape. And it’s not like there are eight songs—one per city on the album. Right? Right?
Gimmicks are fine if they actually do something for the band. Grohl’s self-importance would be infinitely more tolerable if the use of different recording locations actually yielded some variation in the songs. I’d like the Nashville piece (“Congregation”) to actually sound like Nashville, or the New Orleans song (“In the Clear”) to have, say, a bit of a baroque jazz influence. But the songs on the album don’t reflect the emotional imprint of each city at all—the gimmick may as well be nonexistent as concerns its influence on the songs themselves.
But honestly, much as I’d like the regional gimmick to actually be reflected in the soundscapes of the songs, “Sonic Highways” falls short of even presenting eight distinguishable songs. Every last one of the numbers on this album, no matter how they start, always converge to the same, arena-rock shouting number, with Dave Grohl screaming something-or-other over a cacophony of distorted guitar and bass. The Foo Fighters’ emotional palette, in the end, has only one unifying characteristic: its loudness.
This convergence is a shame, because some of the songs actually have quite interesting beginnings. “I Am a River” has a lovely, slightly-surreal intro riff that’s somewhat peaceful and wistful. But the beauty of the introduction is destroyed when the drums hit, the guitar revs up, and the screaming begins, transitioning the song into a bland, generic ballad. At least it has a passionate, deeply nuanced chorus: the words “I… / I… / I am a river” yelled in pretty much every way humanly possible. “Something from Nothing” also starts off promisingly, opening with a dark little minimalist lick, something reminiscent of The Arctic Monkeys or The (early) Black Keys. And then, as expected, Dave Grohl puts away his inside voice and damns “I Am a River” to the bin of wannabe arena rockers.
To be fair, The Foo Fighters still have a decent ear for hooks, and there’s some genuine musicianship exhibited on the album. But in the end, The Foo Fighters are trying far too hard to pump out anthemic crowd pleasers—and by definition, an anthem has to be relevant to its audience: something of a rallying cry for the disaffected youth or similar. But stale old rehashes of “Everlong” haven’t really been doing it for anyone since the late ’90s. The Foo Fighters refuse to realize this, however, and are trying so hard to make today’s audiences love hoarsely-screamed, muddled stadium-rockers. To be sure, this is an honest album. There’s a raw energy here, a genuine belief in the project. But, honestly, the degree of commitment vis-à-vis the actual quality of the album is embarrassing. There’s something fundamentally lame about this wasted effort—the listener is left with a small kernel of pity for this anachronistic dinosaur of an album that makes it impossible to regard with anything more than condescension.
Most of us have learned that, when yelling fails, it’s often time to try a different tack. Hopefully The Foo Fighters learn that lesson sooner rather than later.
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