Twenty years after the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, his bandmates have chosen rather different paths toward middle age. Bassist Krist Novoselic lives on an overgrown patch of land somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, surrounding himself with goats and making weird dad music with his recently-formed band Giants in the Trees. Drummer Dave Grohl, however, formed his band Foo Fighters shortly after Cobain’s passing. Nirvana-era Grohl was kind of skinny and dopey-looking. By now, Grohl has matured: he’s grown a stylish goatee, and he wears pre-distressed t-shirts and designer flannels with tight black jeans, as a rock star should. With a net worth of over $200 million, he is both a household name for all things modern rock and a presentable representative of the hazy, druggy world of ‘90s alternative.
Foo Fighters’ ninth studio album came out Sept. 15. “Concrete and Gold” follows 2014’s “Sonic Highways,” an elaborate production that received mixed reviews. The band recorded each of its eight tracks in a different city known for its music scene, followed all the while by an HBO documentary crew. After the spectacle of “Highways,” along with a personal crisis, Grohl decided that “the strangest thing for this band to do at this point” was to “go into a studio and make a f***ing album like a normal band.”
But don’t let the gritty cover art fool you. “Concrete and Gold” is not just some album by a normal band. It’s a bit heavy on the gold, light on the concrete. First of all, the album was produced by Greg Kurstin, who has worked with a star-studded list of pop artists, including Sia (Hurstin produced “The Greatest” and “Cheap Thrills”) and Adele (“Hello”). Justin Timberlake is featured on the hard rock standard, “Make It Right,” and Paul McCartney plays drums on the sweet-sounding “Sunday Rain.” Grohl’s well-groomed and well-adjusted celebrity is completely at odds with the music that got him famous in the first place. Foo Fighters put on a show of being angsty and defiant, but it’s not all that believable. The greatest rock musicians are often innovative (in other words, scary to the older generations), frighteningly unstable, excitingly flamboyant, or some combination. “Concrete and Gold,” like the rest of Foo Fighters’ discography, isn’t really any of these things.
Of course, Foo Fighters do all they can to give the album an edge. For example, the eponymous last track ends with a wave of fuzzy guitar feedback and Grohl yelling, “F*** you, Darrell!” at Darrell Thorp, who mixed the album. It almost feels like they’re overcompensating. They know they’re too good at playing their instruments, and everything feels a bit too tight, too perfect, so they need a really rock-and-roll, spontaneous, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” moment. But this doesn’t make up for the uninteresting instrumentation throughout the album.
Foo Fighters also followed in the trend of older bands seizing the unfavorable political climate as an opportunity to make brave statements in the form of music. Last year, Le Tigre reunited to make their uncharacteristically bad pro-Clinton single “I’m With Her” (“Trump thinks Putin is a ‘very strong leader’ / […] / Bigotry colors his every decision,”), while Green Day sang about gun violence on their latest album, “Revolution Radio” (2016), which, despite its title, was not particularly revolutionary. On “Concrete and Gold,” the track “Dirty Water” characterizes the Flint water crisis with a first-person narrative. Grohl sings, “I’ve been drinking dirty water,” though, unlike the residents of Flint, Grohl lives in an area privileged enough to have access to clean water. The song “La Dee Da” refers to cult leader Jim Jones and certain bands associated with neo-Nazism, while “Arrows” seems to tell the story of a female refugee. All these songs seem to have been written with the purpose of making a profound political statement, but they’re all pretty inconsequential. It’s like when your aunt, from her Upper West Side apartment, reposts scathing New Yorker exposés to Facebook. It’s not as sexy when there’s no risk involved, and the Foo Fighters aren’t adding anything unique to the conversation.
Not all the songs seem to have a purpose, however. Their titles and lyrics are so cryptic and unoriginal, they might not be about anything at all. When Grohl sings, “All I ever wanted was a body to share” in “The Line,” who exactly does he want to share the body with? And what does it mean to share a body? Cryptic lyrics are often interesting and fun to parse, but it sounds here like Grohl is just trying to be inexplicably melodramatic and somewhat rock-and-roll-sounding (“The tears in your eyes / Someday will dry / We fight for our lives”). The entire album can probably be best described as “somewhat rock-and-roll-sounding” with its fuzzy guitars and its choruses that can either be screamed or sung. In an interview, the band said they wanted the album to sound like “Motorhead’s version of ‘Sgt. Pepper’” or “Slayer making ‘Pet Sounds.’” But “Concrete and Gold” only samples from the biggest hits of all the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, so it resembles a “Guitar Hero” video game more than the great rock band they’re trying to be.