The Foo Fighters fail to evolve in 'Sonic Highways'
Regularly, a rock album comes along in the 2010s and I feel as though I’m listening to it in 1992, before Desmond Tutu walked on water and declared us a rainbow nation, and before RDP houses, and not in a retro-cool way.
There are bands that evolve constantly while keeping their sound and fan base, and then there are those that seem satisfied with putting out an album so technically and stylistically mediocre that it does their impressive history an injustice.
The Foo Fighters put on an incredible live show in Johannesburg last weekend. Dave Grohl is a fiercely impressive live performer, a fine singer-songwriter, and a bloody cool guy.
The reason the Foo Fighters were here was to promote their new album, Sonic Highways.
And, frankly, in spite of Grohl’s best efforts at presentation, the songs from the new album are rather same-samey. It just isn’t a great rock record.
Let’s leave aside the inevitable Nirvana comparison because it’s pointless pointing out that, for two decades, Grohl might have carried influences from the band he once drummed for.
More importantly, I daren’t criticise Nirvana because I am young and a little afraid of Nirvana fans. And let’s ignore the Foo Fighters’ earlier successes because the many great choruses in the band’s 20-year discography aren’t in dispute here.
The evolution of “American music”
This album doesn’t offer one, although the band clearly tried. I Am a River is a valiant attempt. The band calls the album “a love letter to the history of American music”. Each of the eight tracks were recorded in a different city in the United States.
Grohl wanted the cities to influence the songs, traversing the evolution of “American music”, whatever that might be. And so one might expect to hear influences of American music on Sonic Highways. But all you really hear is the Foo Fighters being influenced by, well, the Foo Fighters.
Sure, there’s the brass section that features in the New Orleans inspired In the Clear, which is useful as a passing reference to that great musical city. The descending brass parts, in unison, add something emotive to the song. But apart from adding more texture to the arrangement, the parts just aren’t that interesting, musically.
The musical lexicon has run thin
In the music video for In the Clear, the band plays in a smallish jazz club, supposedly another New Orleans’ tribute. We can surmise that this is so because everything looks aged and on the bass drum are written the words “jazz band”. But that’s about as New Orleans as it gets. The rest is the Foo Fighters.
This is perhaps what happens when a band’s musical lexicon runs thin and they try to cover it up with lyrics. The Feast and the Famine does slightly better. This is influenced by Washington DC’s underground punk scene, and the style and grit of the genre comes across nicely on this track.
Perhaps this works better because it’s more authentic. Grohl reportedly spent much of his youth in DC punk clubs. Here’s the twin problem with this album: the band feels like the Foo Fighters Lite, and the concept album idea just isn’t convincing. It is creatively lacking.
The birth of rock ’n roll was about the next stage in the evolution of a simple, yet emotive blues chord progression. Rock evolved into an expression of the sentiment of its time, not a masterclass in composition. We don’t expect rock musicians to have the dexterity of a pianist who learns to play Liszt, or the virtuosity of Oscar Peterson.
But is it too much to expect rock musicians to push themselves, to be exceptional even within rock music’s limitations? It’s a little disappointing that the Foo Fighters haven’t evolved on Sonic Highways.
According to an HBO special with the same name as the album, which documented the recordings in each city, Grohl wanted to “renew the creative process” by letting the cities inspire the music.
Ideas shape composition, but concepts can’t simply be turned into great songs though the musical ideas aren’t there. It feels as though the band tried to put the cart before the horse. It didn’t really work. It’s just too ... Foo Fighters.