Sound — 6
For the last few years, Dave and the boys have championed the return of analogue music, and for the most part I've loved it. Wasting Light was their best album at least since "There Is Nothing Left to Lose"; even though it lacked the diversity of some of their other records. Save for one song, it was 3 guitars, a bass, drums, and vocals, and it worked. It was cohesive, catchy, and importantly didn't sound overproduced. I also loved the "Back and Forth" movie, and the "Sound City" movie was good even if the album was a little inconsistent.
This is perhaps why I am so annoyed the way Dave's vocals have been recorded. The first line or two of the opening song "Something From Nothing," seems to be one vocal track. Then, suddenly, it changes to what seems to be 3-4 tracks. It may seem a small thing, but it annoyed me for the whole album. For years he's been saying things to the effect of "if you can't do it live, why do it in the studio?" I probably wouldn't have noticed if it hadn't started so sparse; he's multi-tracked on all of their other albums, but this is basically like holding a giant sign up that says "Hi, I have little confidence in my voice so I'm multi tracking this." It's not as bad as autotuning it, but I dunno, here it sounds almost processed.
As far as songwriting goes, the songs for the most part just aren't there. A song like the Nashville inspired "Congregation" seems to be so excruciatingly close to being a great riff akin to some of their previous songs, such as "Stacked Actors," "Hey Johnny Park!," or "Dear Rosemary." But it just isn't. I want it to be, I've already paid to see them in February. But it's just too by the numbers. It sounds like a mix of an "In Your Honour" track with a small element of country. The same goes for "Something From Nothing." It has it's moments, I love the porno-keyboards of Rami Jaffee. But for a building song without a chorus it just seems so safe. It lacks the grittiness and barrelling intensity on most of "Wasting Light." It was the lead single here, but if I'm honest, it would have only just made it onto their previous effort.
The saving grace is "Outside." A song that for my mind clearly should have been the lead single and probably would have been had they released this album traditionally instead of through a documentary series; doing one song each week. Catchy, punchy and exciting. Perhaps most importantly it is distinguishable from their back catalogue whilst still sounding like the Foo Fighters.
"In the Clear," despite holding the claim of being the first Foos song with horns, defines a "filler track." It is numbingly boring, as is the song "Subterranean," which whilst undoubtedly an improvement still sounds like a rehashing of their "In Your Honour" track "Miracle." I don't want to call these songs dreary, because dreary can be amazing (see: "...Like Clockwork"). Rather these songs are simply tired. There's nothing wrong with being slow, my favourite Foos song is "Aurora," with "Ain't It the Life," "Walking After You" and "Razor" also some of my favourites. These songs just don't SOUND like they offer anything new, even if they do. Painting by numbers.
The closing track, "I Am a River" is one of the more interesting songs. It sounds great, huge in fact. Definitely worth listening to with decent headphones or speakers. It's not the best song on the album, but it's well performed and produced. The intro tricked me; it sounds almost like a Bon Iver or even LCD Soundsystem song, the atmosphere is there - until Dave's vocals arrive. It builds and builds. It could have been a great quiet song but turns into a very good louder song.
The songs are almost there. Some of them are very very good. They all have something different; but most of them seem to be lacking an "X-Factor"; be it a slightly different riff, bigger backing vocals, an effect, whatever. I don't know, I'm just the critic, not the writer. Don't tell me to do any better. Fight me. You would.
Lyrics — 3
Dave's idea for lyrics was to take snippets from his documentary interviews and apply them to the song recorded in the city of which these interviews referred to. That sounds great in concept, because if there's one thing that bugged me about "Wasting Light," it was the lyrics. The came from a can, they were catchy but at the same time, they were just rhyming clichés. It worked for the album, but my brain was hardly in overdrive. Dave's lyrics have been declining since their 3rd album, becoming more and more obvious with each album. Their first three albums had an element of mystery to the lyrics, and even if they didn't make any sense literally, they were fun to interpret. Even the power ballads and riff fests were interesting lyrically. "Everlong," "Stacked Actors," "Floaty" and "For All the Cows" gave you something to think about. Songs like "Arlandria" and and "I Should Have Known" just don't - thank god they're musically great songs.
So all of the above is basically me just being really verbose about the fact that I was quite excited to hear Dave's new approach to lyrics. But it again just doesn't work. I attribute this to me watching the show before hearing the songs. I heard the snippets he used, and now have the context each phrase was used in. It all ends up being completely disjointed. In the case of the first three albums, the lyrics might have been just as meaningless, but I didn't have any context for them so I was able to interpret them as I wanted.
I applaud Dave for trying though, because these are the kind of ideas that, when the stars align, turn into something grand (see "Abbey Road," "Ziggy Stardust"). Keep trying new things, they won't all fall flat.
Overall Impression — 6
It's not their worst album. It reminds me a lot of "In Your Honour"; an ambitious project where the songs just aren't there, they are mostly filler. However it trumps "In Your Honour" for having a better sound and for not being an hour and a half long. It's bland, but it's not as criminally bad as the second half of "One by One." The first half of that album is almost the antithesis of "Sonic Highways," it's got some great songs that are poorly produced. ("All My Life," "Tired of You," "Have It All," "Low," "Times Like These"). The second half is the definition of abysmal. So "Sonic Highways" is ahead of those two albums, but below the rest.
I like most of the production even if it's a little overboard on the vocals. I like the TV show a lot, it's incredibly interesting (the Nashville episode was amazing). I loved the concept when I heard about it. I love "Outside" and "I am a River," "Congregation" and bits and pieces of most of the songs.
I didn't like the ridiculous amount of promotion, but that's just how things work. I don't like the album cover much, even though it sums up the 8 cities idea. Too messy. I don't like that there is only one song under 4 minutes, JUST. Nothing wrong with a long song, but they need to be really entertaining if they don't progress much (See "Walk Like a Giant" - Neil Young. I don't know how that man does it, that song should be so boring but it isn't. Completely effortless).
Even if this album isn't amazing it's decent. Passable. It's just lacking energy, but they'll probably make that up live - their Letterman performance of "Something From Nothing" was a massive improvement on the studio version. Dave's still one of the world's most entertaining frontmen.
I didn't buy this album in the first place but if I accidentally deleted it I'd re-download it. Partly because it's got some good songs, partly because I'm a completionist.
P.S. I downloaded it because of this video. Perhaps the thing I like about Dave most. Piracy in a nutshell.