Sonic Highways is the Foo Fighters’ most ambitious album yet. By now, we all know the back story. There’s an HBO documentary in the vein of Sound City, the band is recording a new song in each of the historic eight cities they visit, the lyrics are influenced by the cities’ history…and so on and so forth. It’s a grand idea and an interesting way for an old band to recharge themselves…right?
The answer is somewhere in between. Sonic Highways is the very definition of a mixed bag, at times lending the Foos a fresh sound and at others sounding completely dull and contrived. What the ‘Sonic Highways’ concept allows the band to do is to mix in the sounds of each city with their trademark arena-filling rock, giving them easy avenues of exploration. Perhaps the band knows they’ve never strayed very far from their roots – they’ve been trying to shake up their sound since 2005’s In Your Honor, with varying results. Sometimes it works, like on the excellent Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and other times it falls flat, like the forced electric/acoustic duality of In Your Honor (which only yielded maybe one good album’s worth of material).
So, then, where does Sonic Highways come up short? Well, despite having literally a country’s worth of music history and influences to draw from, the result isn’t really all that different than anything they’ve done in the past decade. There’s flashes of experimentation that work wonderfully, like the brass-charged ‘In the Clear’, or the orchestra on the grand ‘I Am A River’, but even then, all it is is new paint on an old car. And when the band does decide to stick firmly to their guns and stay within their comfort zone, we get a beautifully tender track like ‘Subterranean’, which hearkens back to In Your Honor‘s acoustic better half.
Further proving that the Foos can assimilate anything into their sound and still sound the same, Sonic Highways’ wealth of guest spots had the chance to turn this into another Sound City-esque soundtrack album, with each guest allowed to steal the show on their respective songs. Instead, they fit seamlessly into the songs they guest on: Zac Brown lends an excellent clean guitar solo to ‘Congregation’, bringing the song naturally back down from it’s soaring post-chorus guitar lines. Rick Nielson of Cheap Trick simply provides another layer of guitar on ‘Something from Nothing’, instead of having a chance to really show off his chops, and Joe Walsh is utilized similarly on ‘Outside’. In fact, without knowing who’s on what track ahead of time, it’s pretty much impossible to tell that there’s any guests at all. Oddly enough, this is a quality shared with Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork, another project Grohl was involved with recently.
As far as Foo Fighters albums go, Sonic Highways is fairly short. With only 8 tracks, it clocks in at 43 minutes, pushing the average track length into the 5 and 6 minute range for most of the songs. Despite the short track list, Sonic Highways still has trouble forming into anything resembling a cohesive album, and ends up sounding more like a compilation of slightly more complex Wasting Light b-sides. The only time any real flow happens is the segue between Subterranean and I Am A River, which is one of the best moments here. Otherwise, it’s every song for itself. And unlike 2011’s Wasting Light, which was packed with hit singles, Sonic Highways looks unlikely to repeat that success for them. Dave Grohl had mentioned before the album’s release that he had briefly considered making this the weirdest, darkest Foo Fighters album yet, but then decided ‘fuck that’. It shows. Sonic Highways sits on the fence between experimentation and writing within the confines of the alt-arena-rock sound they’ve traded on for twenty years, and fails to do either particularly well because of it.
For all the hype and bombast surrounding this album and its release, the many guests, and the influence of an entire country’s musical history, it simply fails to do anything special. This should have been the moment the Foo Fighters finally threw off the shackles of radio rock and wrote their most ambitious album yet, and they certainly had every in-road to doing such available to them. Instead, what we got was something that just settles for ‘okay’, masquerading under the guise of being ambitious. By trying so hard to do something different, they got in the way of their own natural songwriting process, and ended up with something far too familiar instead. Wasting Light excelled because it embraced the best qualities of the band and used them to their fullest, where Sonic Highways tries to hard to be something different to no avail. Sometimes I miss the days when the Foo Fighters were just another rock band among many, instead of the rock band, instead of the biggest rock band in the world. I’m sure they’ll still continue to be just as successful, between the admittedly excellent HBO documentary, and ‘Something From Nothing’ getting the prerequisite air time on rock stations around the country. But they didn’t need Sonic Highways to do it; any album and any batch of songs they wrote would’ve had the same effect.
Key Tracks: Something From Nothing, Subterranean, I Am A River