Almost 20 years after Dave Grohl composed and recorded Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut (mostly) by himself in a week, he is releasing an eighth album that’s light years away from his band’s modest inception. Gussied up as an overzealous musical odyssey, Sonic Highways is an arena-ready album in scope, with an ostentatious name to boot. Aside from Grohl’s everyman, salt-of-the-earth charm—yes, he would probably be cool to get a beer with—the frontman remains a bona fide American rock star with the means to govern his rock-star ambitions. So his plan to write and record each of an album’s eight tracks in a different city doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Nor does the bloated concept that the environment’s infrastructure will influence each song’s spirit. Nor does the idea of inviting guest players—each of whom is threaded and regarded within a particular scene—to lend a riff or two. Nor does translating the whole shebang into an HBO series. Why not, right?
Well, sort of. Though the idea is enormous, Sonic Highways is another Foo Fighters rock record, first and foremost. Grohl isn’t paying homage to Chicago blues with a hat tip to a defining Muddy Waters lick on the opener “Something From Nothing,” and he’s not calling out D.C.’s go-go scene with a two-minute funkified interlude on “The Feast And The Famine.” That worship is saved for the lyrics, in which there are fantastic clichés and metaphors aplenty. As an example, try to guess which of the aforementioned cities best ties to the lines “Where is the monument? / To the dreams we forget?” (The lyrics are mostly like that.) Grohl uses the documentary series as his method of acknowledging and scratching the surface of each location’s storied musical background—details in which he appears to have sincere interest, thanks in part to an upbringing in an underground hardcore-punk scene that loves a good lineage story—in addition to shooting the breeze with Dolly Parton, Ian MacKaye, Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Trombone Shorty, and an affable Steve Albini.
Produced by the familiar Butch Vig (Nevermind), the sound of Sonic Highways is massive and faultless: Grohl’s “Monkey Wrench”-era howl still has plenty of pep and the loads of guitar overdubs march in first-rate formation, complementing whatever hard, blue-collar rock-guitar riff is going to help plate the next played-to-death radio single. But it’s those fireworks and light-show moments that remain the Foo Fighters’ bread and butter. A track like the wishy-washy, Seattle-born “Subterranean”—with ho-hum vocal melodies by Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard paired with Grohl’s—is buried in the Puget Sound. The blaring horns of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band do the same for “In The Clear,” as does the desert-rock of “Outside,” which was recorded at L.A.’s Rancho De La Luna. Regardless of the week-per-city guideline, the album’s dynamics are as strategic and fantastical as anyone would expect, culminating in a towering outro on “I Am A River,” rife with stringed crescendos and all the fixings. Grohl’s quest is representative of an enthusiasm—rounded out by some overwrought lyrics—nearly swallowing itself alive, sure, but with Foo Fighters, hating the game seems more right than hating the player.