Foo Fighters founder and frontman Dave Grohl is in love with rock 'n' roll. And he's striving to express that unabashed ardor on his band's eighth studio album, Sonic Highways.
Grohl & Co. set out to make what the singer/guitarist/drummer describes as "a love letter to the history of American music." His methodology? Recording each of the album's eight songs in historically significant studios all around the country—Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, Washington, D.C.—with influential musicians from each place contributing.
I'm talking about folks you wouldn't normally associate with the Foo Fighters, like, say, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, country picker extraordinaire Zac Brown and the Eagles' Joe Walsh, among others. Grohl says of the ambitious approach and outcome, "I really believe that the environment in which you write or record an album influences the musical result. … This is a musical map of America. From the origins of blues to the birth of hip-hop and punk, we've pulled up the family tree of American music."
So if you happened to be a Foo fan but didn't know that backstory before listening to Sonic Highways, would it naturally sound like a historical guide book for rock? Actually, it mostly sounds like the Foo Fighters—for better or worse.
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"Something From Nothing" grapples with the question of how much our past should shape our identities as we move into the future. For Grohl, the past is an inescapable reality ("But in the end we all/Come from what's before") but not one that necessarily dictates our destiny ("You have no choice, you have to choose/Bid farewell to yesterday"). The song also enshrines the American mythos of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to achieve a dream ("I'm something/From nothing").
"The Feast and the Famine" observes, "You can't find peace if you can't find a home/You can't survive on an island alone." It also suggests that learning from shattered dreams is the key to change ("Hey, where is the monument/To the dreams we forget?/We need a monument/And change will come"). "I Am a River" reminds us of the central importance of love and life-giving relationships ("The soul is yearning, the coal is burning/The ember starts a fire/Can we recover, love for each other?/The measure of your life").
"What Did I Do?/God as My Witness" confesses, "I'm lost, deliver me/I'll cross the river finally/God as my witness, yeah, it's gonna heal my soul tonight." (What's unclear in this song, however, is exactly what that healing "it" actually is.)
The gospel-y "Congregation" suggests that we need to have faith … in the sledgehammer sounds of a rock concert. Album closer "The River" brims with opaque metaphors about a dark and spiritually potent river: "Beneath the subway floor/I found the water, the devil's water/And walked along its shore."
Determination and desperation vie for the final word on "In the Clear," with the latter seemingly getting the nod in a chorus that says, "You know I'm not in the clear." Meanwhile, the song's bridge suggests that it's loud music that should "wash me out." "Subterranean" brims with murky, mopey imagery related to relational alienation and death ("You might think you know me/I know d--n well you don't/ … And I might think you love me/But I know d--n well you don't/ … Bring all your lies, leave them deep in the dirt/Oh no, you don't/Pull down my eyes/Lay me deep in the earth").
"Outside," recorded in Los Angeles, perhaps hints at the '70s and '80s gender-bending glam scene when Grohl growls, "Another time, another world/Girls were boys and boys were girls." A smattering of harsh profanities—a couple of f- and s-words, and one use of "g--d--n"—punctuates the proceedings.
If you sift back through nearly 20 years of Plugged In's Foo Fighters reviews, you'll find words like ambiguous, muddy, murky and haunting popping up in nearly every one of them. And those words are equally apt here. Dave Grohl and his Foo Fighters have ostensibly given us a concept album (and an accompanying eight-episode HBO series of the same name, by the way) that pays tribute to America's musical history. Mostly, though, it just sounds like the raw, occasionally hopeful, more often melancholy rock group that the Foos have reliably proven themselves to be since their 1995 debut.