The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Foo Fighters
Sonic Highways JR Moores , December 10th, 2014 11:46

With apologies to Brett Easton Ellis

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO'RE MEANT TO HEAR is scrawled in blood red lettering on the back of the padded UPS envelope containing my watermarked promotional compact disc which arrives in the mail along with an AmEx bill, the Ralph Lauren catalog and a flyer for the new Motörhead musical, Lemmyserables. I listen to the watermarked promotional compact disc over a lunch of golden caviar with poblano chillies and sun-dried tomatoes, topped with thin, pan-fried slices of human skin. I write the first draft of my critique on the wall of my apartment using a stenching mixture of blood and excrement and then copy it into my laptop before the maid can obediently wipe down the gore-soaked walls. That evening I head to the rock show where all around the arena signs warn: NO PHOTOGRAPHY/FILMING PERMITTED. So what do I do? I take photos. I film. I live-tweet my footage. I chat to Dermot O'Leary during the lesser-known tracks. It's not the band I hate - it's the audience's enjoyment of them that bothers me. Rumours circulate that Prince Harry himself is in one of the corporate suites, snorting coke with Tom Cruise, Donald Trump and Jo Whiley and that tonight's set will feature a guest spot from at least one member of Aerosmith. Their powerful music aside, Foo Fighters' shows are always worth attending because, for a heavy rock band, they attract the greatest proportion of hardbodies this side of Maroon 5.

I approach one girl in the VIP section, convince her that Dave never bothers to show his face at these things, and we take the limo back to my apartment where I remove her clothes, chop off her limbs and throttle her with her own designer blouse (an unsightly abstract-patterned garment from Kim Gordon's line for French brand Surface To Air). I lie naked in a pool of blood, jerking myself with the girl's entrails, smoking a cigar, and browsing the internet on my iPhone 6. I scroll immediately to the below-line comments that I always pretend to ignore, where in words that match my own feelings of cultural despair are the letters THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.

I've been a big Foo Fighters fan ever since the release of their 1999 album, There Is Nothing Left To Lose. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work, though on their last album for Capitol, the riff-laden The Colour And The Shape (a reference to UFOs from which the band also take their name), I did enjoy the lovely 'Everlong'. Otherwise both the albums before There Is Nothing Left To Lose seemed too raw, too feculent. It was There Is Nothing Left To Lose (RCA; 1999) where Dave Grohl's compositions became more delicate and the music got more commercial, the melodies became more prevalent and the lyrics started getting less nebulous and more specific (maybe because of label pressure), and complex, ambiguous studies of loss became, instead, smashing first-rate pop songs that I gratefully embraced. The songs themselves seemed arranged more around Dave Grohl's classic songwriting than Dave Grohl's drumbeats, Dave Grohl's shouting, or Dave Grohl's guitar riffs. A classic example of this is 'Learn To Fly', which was not only the group's first big radio hit but also seemed to set the tone for their rest of their albums as their career progressed. The other standout on There Is Nothing Left To Lose is 'Stacked Actors', which is about the negative effects of Hollywood. On the other hand, 'Aurora' is a touching song about a man who has left the DC hardcore and Seattle grunge scenes behind him to triumphantly form the contemporary equivalent of the Eagles. Has the nostalgia of an ex-punk-turned-modern-day-Tom-Petty ever been rendered in more intimate terms by a millionaire rock & roll singer? I don't think so.

One By One (RCA; 2002) was released almost immediately after There Is Nothing Left To Lose and it benefits from a new producer, Nick Raskulinecz, who gives the band a more Queens of the Stone Age sound and though the songs seem fairly generic, there are still great bits throughout: the extended jam in the middle of 'Come Back' and the additional guitar by some guy called Brian May on 'Tired of You' are just two examples.

Nick Raskulinecz also produced their next album, In Your Honour (RCA; 2005), an ambitious double-CD set on which the band's material was divided between two separate 'heavy' and 'acoustic' discs. However, Foo Fighters are at their strongest when the hard and light dynamics are melded together into one glossy and glorious whole (as on 'Learn To fly') and too many of the lyrics center around Grohl's memories of his ex-bandmate Cobain, which are way too reminiscent of 'My Hero' from the group's earlier album The Colour And The Shape, and an example of where Grohl has plagiarized himself, although I did enjoy the presence of Norah Jones on the delicate 'Virginia Moon'.

Gil Norton produced the next, less conceptual effort, called Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (RCA; 2007), and though it's a fine album a lot of it now seems too derivative for my tastes. 'Statues' reminds me of Wings-era McCartney and 'Long Road To Ruin' sounds purposely written to be given a new lease of life by Glee. Legendary grunge producer Butch Vig recorded Wasting Light (RCA; 2011) on which, with the return of original guitarist Pat Smear, the band embraced a more back-to-basics fierce rock sound that remained appropriate for the stadium environment.

Sonic Highways (RCA; 2014) is the most ambitious, artistically satisfying record yet produced by the Foo Fighters. It is the group's undisputed masterpiece, an epic meditation on the history of American music and popular culture that coincides with an HBO documentary series in which Dave Grohl interviews all his male musical heroes and also Dolly Parton.

Each of Sonic Highways' eight tracks was recorded in a different American city, and each one features a guest (male) musician from that particular locale. These include Bad Brains, Zac Brown, Gary Clark Jr. and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Their presence adds to the CD's theme of community but doesn't clutter the record because for the most part you can't really hear them anyway and what's left is another irrepressible Foos album. 

All in all it ranks with the finest rock & roll achievements of the century and the mastermind behind this album, along of course with the brilliant ensemble playing of Grohl, Smear, Mendel, Hawkins, Shiflett and Jaffee, is producer Butch Vig who, despite having to record in eight different studios, has never found as sharp and shiny sound as this. 

In terms of lyrical craftsmanship and sheer songwriting skills this album hits a new peak of professionalism. Take the lyrics to 'Something From Nothing', in which the singer addresses his fascination for the past (particularly his own). This is laid down with a groove funkier and blacker than anything by Prince or Daft Punk or Robin Thicke. Similarly, 'Outside' is a very moving song, its lyrics seem to have been written by a man who yearns to escape wealth and fame or turn the clock back to simpler, happier times, and yet, as the track's crisply anthemic music professes, the very same person cannot bring himself to do this, professionally speaking.

The album's big ballad, 'Subterranean,' is a dreamy pearl of a song, and though it's about the end of Nirvana and Grohl's difficult decision to continue to play music, it also makes allusions to the album's wider 'Small World' theme - and the band sounds really good on it.

As well-produced as the album is, it also has a pure urgency that not even the overrated Nickelback can equal. As an observer of rock music's history Grohl beats out the Kroeger again and again, reaching new heights of emotional honesty on 'What Did I Do?/God As My Witness'; yet it also showcases Grohl's funnier, more playful side by evoking Kiss' rendition of 'God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You'.

The album ends with 'I Am A River', which is a seven-minute Tony Visconti-aided epic complete with gorgeous string arrangement, and though its title may seem like a cliché, Dave and the band have a way of energizing clichés and making them originals wholly their own. 'You don't need a needle hanging out of your arm to be a rock star' Grohl recently told the Guardian newspaper or, as another favourite artist of mine once put it, it's hip to be square. I stress the word artist for in fact it applies to the Foo Fighters too, all four or five or six of those guys, because Foo Fighters are still the best, most exciting American Psychos band of the twenty-first century.