Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Foo Fighters Concrete And Gold

This brings me great pleasure to report: You shouldn’t count out the Foo Fighters just yet.

Not that you’d have been ill-advised to have done so. Mainstream rock’s most enduring heavyweights haven’t garnered much critical clout over the years, rather finding themselves internally at war with how to keep what they do fresh when they’ve long been the genre’s equivalent of nonperishable foods: They’ve proved dependable, but rarely appetizing, and part of what makes them so dismissible is the unsavory length of their lifespan.

Dave Grohl, being rock’s most eager-to-please superstar, has offered up a plethora of new serving styles using his same core ingredients: churning guitars and chugging drums, vague sentimentality first sung with a whisper then a roar, and nostalgic nods to seminal influences. Beginning with 2005’s In Your Honor, you could have these songs in whatever medium you desire: acoustic, electric, live, analog, or documentary. Grohl’s tried again and again to surprise us with each season’s limited edition version of the Foo Fighters, but as with any processed food, the flavor’s just an external coating decorating what is in spirit the same snack.

The most surprising quality of the band’s ninth and latest studio album then is that it marks the first time in a minute the Foos’ advertising budget doesn’t loom larger than the operating costs. Concrete And Gold doesn’t have any easily identifiable narrative, which makes it from the onset the most refreshing Foo Fighters LP in over a decade. (Thank PJ Harvey for that, I guess.) You don’t have to overthink the album as anything other than a collection of rock songs — not a tribute to the concept of rock songs (Sonic Highways) nor cosplay of the “ideal” rock band (Wasting Light). There isn’t any high-maintenance adherence to formal guidelines Grohl set out before writing any songs, nor any statement on the larger culture of rock n’ roll that’s already plagued the upcoming Killers LP. Rather than reach outward for associations Grohl can tether the Foos onto, he’s crafted something insightfully insular, something inspired by ideas bigger than simply the band’s reach.

Let me be clear: Everything here still sounds like the Foo Fighters. Grohl’s frequent collaborator and fellow contemporary rock ambassador Josh Homme may have described Concrete And Gold as “a weird record,” but that’s blatant misdirection. Same with all the guest features Grohl teased alongside the album’s announcement — from good ol’ Sir Paul to Boys II Men’s Shawn Stockman to the “biggest pop star on Earth,” which in his mind is apparently Justin Timberlake. Those contributions all end up being entirely anonymous, and even the addition of touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee as a full-time member doesn’t upset the Foos’ established equilibrium. This is not the band’s experimental reinvention, and everything here is still more conventional than Homme’s most straightforward albums or those by Grohl’s other titanic peers like Jack White and Trent Reznor. You’ve got the punctuated breaks between verses, pre-choruses, and choruses, the fist-pumping rhythmic pulse, and plenty of exaggerated guitar tones and effects.

Yet almost none of it feels like the Foo Fighters. These songs are effervescent, bright and clear, with plenty of white space and an unusual amount of restraint — embodying patience and grace far more than the album the band actually named after those qualities. None of them drive further down the band’s habitual ruts — big and banal, beefy and breathless. Instead you can hear the Foos stretch new muscles here, making previously unexplored terrain feel completely within their comfort zone. At one point Dave Koz shows up to play the saxophone, and he blends perfectly into the sonic mix such that you’ll barely register his presence unless you actively seek it out, as if the Foos’ have always had saxophones in their songs.

The most prominent and consistent departure from their stereotypical sound on Concrete And Gold are the unexpected psychedelic undertones, recalling the rippling haze of the mid-’60s more so than the late-’70s cruise-control riffers that Grohl’s been reinterpreting since the turn of the century. Beneath the boiling furnace exterior of “La Dee Da,” I hear ingrained elements of “Dancing In The Streets” and the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius (Let The Sun Shine In).” On the other end of the decade’s musical signifiers, the Taylor Hawkins-led “Sunday Rain” feels spacey and expansive, like Ten Years After meets Black Sabbath. There are some real impactful sun-through-the-clouds harmonies all across the album, reminiscent of Abbey Road’s choir-like accents that made weightless rock songs with real meat on their bones.

In spite of their obsession with the history of studios, the Foos have never been known for being a “studio band,” yet on Concrete And Gold they employ a number of effective tricks worthy of the era they’re emulating. Beyond the compositional structures, the production choices nod to a conscientious effort to enact what Grohl promised as “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper.” At first glance “Make It Right” may seem like a by-the-numbers riff-rager, but from the rise-and-fall melodic crests, crisp wind-smooth percussive groove, and translucent overdrive, it comes across more fully realized than any of its forebears in the band’s catalogue.

Dirty Water,” meanwhile, has the same buoyant playfulness that’s characterized many of the Fab Four’s most enduring tunes but is also laser-focused, stretching out past the five-minute mark without ever missing a cue or staying on a section longer than warranted. The riveting conclusion expands so gradually that you notice the intensity in your bones before your ears. Even “Arrows,” the most conventional Foo Fighters track here, doesn’t lose sight of its center through the skies, reaching a massive scale without forgoing any of its steady gravitas.

While the Beatles comparisons may seem on their face laughable given the Foos’ track record, they’re especially apt on songs like “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour),” which is by my metrics the best song on this beast by a mile. It’s a subversively zippy acoustic tune, finding zen in dejection, reflecting a nuance previously unattempted in Grohl’s songwriting. The lyrics on previous Foo records have generally been inessential to the product as a whole, but here they play a central role in Concrete And Gold’s charm. Whether delivered in screams or sighs, Grohl’s reliably wise and weary across these 11 tracks.

On the cathartic lead single “Run,” he’s calling out for us to rebelliously live in the present rather than passively watch our moment become the past. Meanwhile, on the aforementioned “Happy Ever After” he mourns all we’ve lost from our tendency to bury our best because of their differences: “There ain’t no superheroes now/ There ain’t no superheroes, they’re underground.” Like Homme, Grohl often leans on twisting idioms as a quick path to finding on their face clever lyrics, leading to a few throwaways like “Count what’s left when it’s all gone wrong/ How you gonna make it right?” and “Till death do us part/ For better or for worse.” But he largely avoids those here for tangible, evocative imagery, singing of “dancing to the sound of candles burning out” and “roses in the whiskey jar,” phrases that feel distinct and delicate, rather than optimized for stadium-impact.

And while largely a much looser album than its turgid predecessors, Concrete And Gold doesn’t diminish any of the Foos’ musical ambition — “Run” alone manages to pack in about four different musical schemas into a hell of a head-rush. The difference here is in the execution. This time around, the galloping rhythm rising out of that majestic arpeggio intro feels agile and momentous, not stiff and labored. “In another perfect life/ In another perfect light,” Grohl bellows, an effective shorthand for the out-of-time quality of the song, how it sounds untethered from the the band’s recent past. While they’ve increasingly come across like a super-sized vacuum, now some 20 years later every note and fill hits with the same exhilaration as hearing “This Is A Call” or “Monkey Wrench” for the first time.

“T-Shirt,” though regretfully slight, is an effective opener in that it wastes no time revealing this new expressive confidence, making use of the band’s favorite calm-to-colossal trick alongside theatrical, dazzling riffs that suggest a seemingly innocuous use of the word “queen” at the end of Grohl’s first verse wasn’t merely incidental. It’s a presentation of their sound in the best possible light, balancing calculated structural thrills with an open-hearted and organic musicianship. Within seconds, the band’s crafted an edge-of-your-seat build-up and come-down that properly suspends its audience’s disbelief, mainly in the long-held conviction that the Foo Fighters couldn’t possibly sound this urgent and essential anymore.

The introduction also brushes aside the stakes of Concrete And Gold, and for as long as they’ve been headlining music festivals and tokenizing rock at awards show performances the Foo Fighters have been defined by the stakes of their output. As an institution they’re too big to fail, but typically with each release they raise the expectations and deliver continuously diminishing returns. Grohl finally seems disinterested in proving himself, opening the album with the simple lullaby lyric, “I don’t wanna be king/ I just wanna sing a love song/ Pretend there’s nothing wrong/ You can sing along with me.”

Of course, the other way those lines read is in response to the United States’ present political clusterfuck. And indeed, Grohl has said the album is based around thoughts on the country’s future, with much of the lyrical content centered on escapism, cosmic justice, and abstract critiques of the “American ruse.” I won’t say that’s not the thematic concentration of Concrete And Gold, but it doesn’t define the album much the way current events have defined both the identities and musical output of the Foos’ top-tier rock competitors. That’s largely an unintended consequence of Grohl’s inability to ever get too specific in his songwriting — even if he’s partially improved upon that weakness here — but it’s also a nice blueprint outlining how bands like the Foo Fighters capture our hearts in the first place: by channeling our own aggression without getting bogged in the anger, using anthems to inspire resilience rather than draw dispiriting blood.

Ultimately, Concrete And Gold proves itself to be an ideal case for a band that’s amassed a huge following interested in maintaining their heights while reclaiming the fans they’ve lost along the way. These songs operate on multiple levels — still on their surface lined with hooks, but built from the bottom-up to feel remarkably whole. “The Sky Is A Neighborhood” takes the schlocky qualities that have weighed down previous Foo Fighters tunes and funnels them into a delightfully grand astral barn-stomper. It’s the kind of track they’ve previously fumbled by packing too thick both conceptually and musically, but here it’s lean and muscular, sounding huge without getting unwieldy.

I have to imagine much of that credit goes to the band’s decision to work with recent Producer Of The Year Grammy-winner Greg Kurstin, even if the prospect initially seemed bleak for dislodging the band from their bloated instincts. If Mark Ronson taking over the boards for Queens Of The Stone Age rang alarm bells for some, then Kurstin’s involvement with the Foos should have incited an impending disaster warning. He’s the man behind Adele’s “Hello,” Sia’s “The Greatest,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Regardless of those songs’ various quality levels, on paper they’d suggest a production style focused on tunneling the Foos’ anthemic choruses through radio-ready dynamics (or rather, lack of dynamics). And unlike Ronson, who’s balanced his pop portfolio with astonishingly accomplished artistic breakthroughs, Kurstin’s biggest equivalent would be a co-production on Kendrick Lamar’s “Love,” which is still the most contested song on the rapper’s flawless DAMN.

Yet as with Ronson and QOTSA, Kurstin proves to be an effective conjugate in giving the Foos’ music colo(u)r and shape without diminishing any of its punch and rush. As case examples, Concrete And Gold and Villains offer a path forward for statesmen rock acts to return with renewed relevance that will likely prove more effective than yet another team-up with Danger Mouse or Rick Rubin. Concrete And Gold’s achievements aren’t merely notable from the standpoint of the band’s previous outings; even measured against the many other essential rock albums of this year, the Foo Fighters unequivocally deliver, standing their ground against attempts at their place on top the mantel.

Naturally, with just seconds left after letting the last note of the buzzing, ballistic ballad of a title track wrap up the proceedings, Grohl can’t help but throw in an isolated and immature “Fuck you Daryl!” to serve as the album’s final words. It’s a purposeless gesture — as if Grohl felt insecure in his decision to entirely forgo his more bro-oriented instincts for the past hour — that serves little but to break the spell of what’s now the best Foo Fighters album of this century. But it’s the only real misstep on an album from a band that’s largely been whiffing on opportunities for a disheartening while. Grohl prefaced Concrete And Gold by calling it “the record we’ve always wanted to make.” Sure, but thus far the Foos have always been making the records they’ve wanted to make. They’ve documented and catalogued the process of doing so extensively. For once, however, it’s also the record we’ve wanted them to make — one that reinforces their claim as members of rock’s canon, and not just its most popular cover band. Perhaps we have a few superheroes left above ground after all.

Concrete And Gold is out 9/15 via Roswell/RCA.