Sound — 5
On "Sonic Highways," Foo Fighters chose to commemorate their 20th anniversary as a band by stretching out and trying something new - a long overdue shake-up of their creative process. Even the most ardent cynic would have to praise the concept - eight songs, each recorded in a different city as a "love letter to American music," as Grohl puts it, following interviews with notable-to-legendary local musicians, all documented in their accompanying HBO series.
The main problem, beside the glaring dearth of great choruses (which is really what this band is about), is that the album combines an ambitious undertaking with tight deadlines, the need to organically capture the "vibe" of each city. Under these circumstances, you'd think the Foos would know their limits and produce a crass, lo-fi punk record in the style of their debut. This is not the case. "Something From Nothing" is the best example yet of Grohl's screams acting as a failed gimmick to save an incoherent composition. It's a shame because the track has ominous riffs and an exciting Shiftlett solo, yet feels both overblown and rushed, punching far above its weight. Since 1997's "The Color and the Shape" opened cleverly with the delicate "Doll" proceeding its polar opposite, "Monkey Wrench," subsequent albums have always started with the most loaded, overcooked song (usually the lead single), as if Grohl and co skip handshakes and niceties, stripping butt-naked in your face and leaving nothing for later. The standard picks up a little; "Feast and the Famine," though by no stretch remarkable, is the album's most memorable chorus and an enjoyable enough romp. "Congregation" is bound to be the guitarists' favourite, with a raunchy, wailing riff and Zac Brown's outro being perhaps the highlight of the whole record (though the intros for this song and "In the Clear" are embarrassingly similar). The second half of the album becomes dominated, right on cue, by lengthy, slower, token ballads, the pick of which is "Subterranean," which sounds like it belongs on a Manic Street Preachers b-side. These songs suffer from the lack of time spent on arrangements, let alone their lack of chorus melodies, and are inappropriate choices to be recorded in a matter of weeks.
Lyrics — 5
Considering the album's concept, lyrics are a make-or-break area to ascertain whether this experiment has worked. The instant supply of novel imagery certainly allowed Grohl to put ink to paper without having to think - as to whether the songs hang together, results vary. "Feast and the Famine" is again a front-runner as the lyrics point to something deeper - "where is the monument to the dreams we forgot?" and have a coherent narrative. Mostly the songs are cryptic, a lot of chat about nothing with little for the listener to latch onto. Take "What Did I Do/God as My Witness" for example: "So here I go again putting words into your mouth, This one's for me to know, and for you to find out! All that troubling I'm on about, How you gonna know 'till you heard it out loud?" There is an interview between Grohl and Kyle Gas where he says the chorus of a pop song should be like a bumper sticker. Since hearing this opinion, I have understood where Grohl's songs are coming from much more, and why they leave so much to be desired.
Overall Impression — 4
Yet again, Foo Fighters have made a record that will satisfy the meagre expectations of their (huge) fan-base and frustrate their (few) detractors - but a minority of one can still be correct. Each new record is a foregone conclusion - guaranteed universal acclaim and guaranteed to hold few surprises. Despite their latest marketing campaign being a little more ambitious than "Wasting Light"'s "we taped it," the Foos can't hide the fact that they ran out of steam a decade ago. "For All the Cows" was quirky, "Everlong" majestic, "Stacked Actors" was beginning to get formulaic, yet bullish and direct enough to compensate. By this point, the band feels so contrived and self-parodying that they are in danger of becoming Nickelback. It is interesting to hear a big band make an album at pace, throwing caution to the wind and exposing exactly what's in their locker - however, this is the only interesting aspect of the record, and what's worse is it doesn't sound miles different from the albums they make with time and effort.