opinion byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN
For better or worse, Sonic Highways is a concept album: Dave Grohl, et al, travel the United States and record at different legendary studios with different rock legends at each location. In my mind, I picture Grohl as a child rigidly completing a maze checklist on the back of a happy meal, tracing his route via “sonic highways” between Seattle, New Orleans, D.C., etc.
Only this time, there are cameras.
“This is a musical map of America,” Grohl intones over the trailer for the Sonic Highways television series, which will continue for the next month to detail the conception, creation and recording of the album, half rock history lip service, and half HBO documentary soundtrack. Playing with everyone from Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen to Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh, the Foos and their new album make for exquisite lunch-time television—a fresh take on well-known ingredients, and easily digestible. For as much as Grohl has billed Sonic Highways as their “most ambitious album yet”—which it certainly is from a production standpoint—everything musical seems startlingly familiar, and not in the paying-homage-to-the-denizens-of-rock-past way the album’s conceit might have you imagine.
The opening track, at least, vaguely waves toward the history in which the Foos have costumed themselves. “Something From Nothing” begins with an uncharacteristic quiet, a quick yen for “the flammable life” they glimpsed in the ghosts of Chicago, their first tour stop. It only takes a few more verses, however, for Grohl to throw in his imitative towel and rip out the grungy vocals and high-powered guitar riffs that have made Foo Fighters famous, proving that when Grohl puts on his rock ambassador hat, it’s only lyrically. In this capacity, though, he takes his duties deliberately and laboriously. This is particularly noticeable in the television series, every episode of which ends with the camera zooming in on Grohl’s hand-written lyric sheets to highlight an explicit reference to something we’ve seen in the past 30 or so minutes (see: “button on a string” in the album opener). By the end of the second episode, it feels as if we’ve been handed the instructions for a paint-by-number alt-rock hit.
This is not to say the album doesn’t have high points or legitimately listenable tracks. “The Feast and the Famine” will be melting down arenas for the next decade, and “What Did I Do/God as My Witness” boasts a remarkable catchy, country-infused earnestness, even if it does rather strongly recall a 90s sitcom theme song. Even, “Congregation,” with its weird religious imagery, sounds undeniably, fist-pumpily Foo in a good way—when Mark Kozelek coined the phrase “beer commercial rock” to diss The War on Drugs, it was this song I heard in my head.
Which is why, when they’re so good at churning out alternative chart toppers, I’m completely confounded as to why the Foo Fighters try so desperately to play at something they’re not. Time and time again, we bear witness to their failed attempts to force themselves into the rock cannon by association, ultimately only sounding like a crooked versions of themselves. It’s time for Grohl to accept that he’ll only ever be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Nirvana, and for Foo Figthers to proudly claim their throne atop the all-time mainstream rock radio giants.
“This is a love letter to the history of American music,” Grohl drones solemnly at the end of the trailer for the HBO series. And if that’s true, American music was all made in the same, very expensive garage.
Why not just own it?