By Kieran Graulich
This year, the Foo Fighters set out on an ambitious, if not overly so, mission: to create a record that paid tribute to the history of American music by interviewing local music legends, finding a landmark studio in the area, and record a song based on their experiences. Repeat this eight times in eight different states and you have “Sonic Highways,” the Foo Fighters’ “love letter” to American music.
On paper, this is an admirable concept; who better than current ‘Rock Zeus’ Dave Grohl to step back in time to explore the roots of the music we hear today? In theory, “Sonic Highways” sounds like an exciting concept.
In execution, however, the album differs. A Foo Fighters album usually has two major appeals to fans: catchy songwriting and hard-rock power. However, in approaching songwriting in a “grander” fashion, the band makes a slight departure from this usual formula, which is fine if the band has something worthwhile to replace it with.
However, “Sonic Highways” seriously brings into question if the band has anything else up their sleeves. For example, the band makes a complete 180 in the lyrical department, moving from topics such as personal struggles and strained relationships to abstract, vast accounts of the cities the band recorded the songs in. As a result, the songs become, at best, confusing and, at worst, completely difficult to relate to: “Here lies a city on fire/Singing along/The arsonist choir/Now here I go” sings Dave Grohl on the opener “Something from Nothing,” completely devoid of any context as to what the “arsonist choir” and a “city on fire” have to do with the theme of the song, mostly because there is none.
Given, there’s an explanation for the lyrics in the band’s HBO miniseries about the recording of the “Sonic Highways,” however, one should not have to watch a TV show to understand a song. Even the best soundtracks are enjoyable apart from the medium they’re made to enhance.
In most other ways, though, Foo Fighters manage to stick to their guns. If there was any trepidation that the new approach to the album bleed gimmicky, contrived genre mimesis, fear not; despite the journey the Foo Fighters made in recording “Sonic Highways,” the band’s trademark sound has hardly changed.
Even after being told that “I Am A River” was supposedly inspired by the rock scene of New York City and the CBGB scene, the song sounds little more than an overdramatic arena rock finale. This can be viewed as both a blessing and a curse: the band doesn’t stray too far stylistically from what they know, but this concept, the album’s selling point, that seemed so promising from the band’s description doesn’t come through at all in the music.
Now, “Sonic Highways” is by no means a terrible album. The band still does manage to create some great, powerful songs and moments when they tread familiar waters. The song “Congregation,” reminiscent of the band’s 2007 album “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace” drives with the familiar Foo Fighters fury, with an ear worm hook, driving verses and a midsection that leads to a fired-up conclusion.
The song “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness” has the abum’s catchiest hook, almost making the listener wish it didn’t fade out so quickly. In reality, there is no song on the album that can be classified as “bad,” simply middle of the road songs that lead to a middle of the road experience.
For an album this ambitious, “Sonic Highways” could have turned out much worse than it did.
Kieran Graulich is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org