Premature Evaluation: Foo Fighters Sonic Highways
There’s a moment on the third episode of Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl’s new HBO show, where Grohl warns his bandmates not to let their environment affect them too much. They’re in Nashville, recording the third song of the Sonic Highways album at Grohl’s country-music buddy Zac Brown’s studio. Grohl is worried that the song is getting too country. He tells everyone around them that it’s important, while they’re soaking in the vibe of their surroundings, to still remain true to themselves. It’s a warning that runs counter to the whole idea of the project. Grohl and the Foo Fighters spent months traveling the country, speaking with the musical luminaries of different cities and then recording in those cities’ most famous studios. On the show, Grohl says over and over that he’s interested in the way people’s surroundings affect the music that they make. But he seems, paradoxically, to be actively against letting the different environments affect his own band’s music too much. Well, he succeeded in tamping down that impulse. Sonic Highways may be a concept album, but the concept disappears the moment you throw the album on. As an album, Sonic Highways isn’t a celebration of America’s vast and diverse musical heritage. It’s a grimly competent trudge-rock album. It’s a Foo Fighters album, and not an especially good one.
As marketing, Sonic Highways is a pretty brilliant move. It’s hard to sell “big rock album” in 2014, but Grohl hasn’t just attached one narrative to it; he’s attached the entire popular-musical history of the united States of America and made that the narrative. It’s a hell of a hook. He talks to all these aging legends on TV, and then he weaves quotes from those conversations into his lyrics, which means people who watch the show get to trace its threads into the album. And with the Foos recording in all these famous studios, with all these famous guests, they get to reflect some of that shine. (In a lot of ways, it’s the big -tent rock version of Probot, Grohl’s 2004 metalhead fantasy-camp album.) Theoretically, this is a smart and cosmopolitan way to make an album and to turn its creation into a sort of musical-education project. Sonic Highways is a pretty good TV show, too, or at least it has been in its first few episodes. Grohl attempts to remold the Nashville country landscape to fit his preexisting idea of it bugged me, and his doofy narration can be a problem. But there’s a genuine loopy enthusiasm to the way Grohl approaches stuff he’s loved for years, like Naked Raygun or Bad Brains. (Honestly, it would be a better show if it was nothing but Grohl talking to old punk bands.) And then in-studio moments are fun, too; they show the intricate puzzles involved in putting songs together, trying to figure out what goes where. But for all the inspiration that the band supposedly gets from recording in all these famous studios, in all these history-rich cities, the actual album only barely reflects the way the band recorded it. Mostly in bad ways.
Listening to Sonic Highways blind, it’s almost impossible to tell which song is, say, the Austin one and which is the New Orleans one. Grohl sometimes makes local-color lyrical references, like the egregious “beneath the subway floor” bit on the New York song “I Am A River.” Sometimes, you’ll hear the odd musical cue, too, like the stray Hammond organ that creeps onto the Nashville song “Congregation,” or the sparking Joe Walsh guitar solo on the L.A. song “Outside.” Mostly, though, this is turgid stadium rock that seems to come from no place and represent nothing. The nods to the host cities’ musical histories feel tokenistic and barely-there. I like the way Grohl’s guitars sound vaguely Jawboxy on the intro to the D.C.-recorded “The Feast And The Famine,” but the go-go drums that come in toward the end are so deeply buried, and so inessential, that they might as well not exist. Meanwhile, New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays on “In The Clear,” but they’re mostly reduced to a quiet low-end buzzing; there were moments, the first time I heard the song, where I just thought someone had mic’ed the bass amp in some weird way. When the band first announced the project, I lived in stomach-clenching fear that the band would record in New York and invite Chuck D or LL Cool J to throw a terrible grumpy guest verse on top of their racket. That doesn’t happen, but the near-complete exclusion of these local elements the band is supposedly celebrating feel like a grand cop-out, an unwillingness to see this goony-ass concept through.
The Foo Fighters did not, after all, record this album with eight different producers; they just brought Butch Vig along to do everything. Vig is certainly a fine choice, and the clean grandeur that he brings is impressive in its own way. But there’s something numbing about that sound, too. When Vig is working on a truly great song, one that actually soars, he’s one of the best rock producers on the planet. He’s obviously made magic with Grohl before; it’s why they keep working together. But there are no great songs on Sonic Highways. Instead, the album feels like it was made to fit a preexisting concept that couldn’t quite support it. Making albums can surely be a grind, and I imagine the whole idea of Sonic Highways made it a fun thought exercise for Grohl and for the band. But Grohl simply isn’t a strong enough songwriter to make this idea work. Maybe circa-1999 Stephin Merritt could start work on an album and know he’d end up with 69 Love Songs in the end, but you have to be a world-class songwriter to make that kind of vision work, and Grohl has never been a world-class songwriter. I’m guessing that Sonic Highways has eight songs because HBO gave Grohl an eight-episode commitment for the series. And if you send Grohl off with the mission to write eight songs that reflect the musical histories of eight American cities, he’s just going to come back with a bunch of stadium sludge. That’s what Sonic Highways is.
The album is not a disaster. The band plays like a tight, focused unit. The musicians in the group are all obviously and ridiculously gifted, and they know how to put their skills into the service of a larger machine. They recorded most of it while playing in rooms together, and that helps, too. But the songs they’re working on never achieve liftoff. Part of the problem, I think, is the lyrics. Grohl just straight-up jerked phrases he’d heard musicians say in his interviews without giving them the context they need. On that first episode of the show, Buddy Guy tells Grohl that he didn’t realize, when he came north to Chicago, that he’d be able to make a living as a musician: “I was looking for a dime, and I found a quarter.” It’s a good quote, but when Grohl uses it on opening track “Something From Nothing,” it’s just context-free word-salad, with Grohl bleating it like it means everything. Grohl’s decision to use these floating phrases makes the experience of hearing the album weirdly embarrassing. He’s clearly proud of these lyrics — he opens the D.C. episode by bragsplaining all the references he worked in — but those references amount to exactly nothing. They don’t just expose the general meaninglessness of this album; they expose the general meaninglessness of every Grohl song ever. And that’s what we get with Sonic Highways: A bored stadium rocker finding a way to keep himself entertained, but building a faulty foundation for the whole thing and just ending up with an album full of boring stadium rock. America deserves better.