In Your Honor aims to be the Foo Fighters at their loudest and lightest. Frontman Dave Grohl initially conceived of the Foos’ fifth album as an acoustic solo disc disguised as a movie score, a humble side project akin to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric Bodysong. Things changed, and Grohl scrapped the idea, opting instead for an ambitious double album, conceived in the punk spirit of extremes: one disc designed as the heaviest set the Foo Fighters have ever delivered, and a second disc in the tradition of the foursome’s live acoustic renditions of “Times Like These” and “Everlong.”
True to Grohl’s intent, the twenty-song, eighty-three-minute opus does separately highlight the quartet’s hard-rocking and melodic skills. (The album’s name is reportedly directed at presidential candidate John Kerry, but that’s about it for the politics.) For the first seven tracks, Grohl — with guitarist Chris Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins — erects a wall of noise as if they were auditioning for Ozzfest. “Can you hear me/Hear me screaming,” Grohl yells at the beginning of the opening title track. It’s a classic grunge wail, and it’s here to remind all pretenders that as a Nirvana alumnus, Grohl maintains the right to shred his vocal cords as he sees fit.
But a funny thing happens: It backfires. As an extended drumroll builds prolonged tension, Grohl and band strain so hard that the melody gets lost, and you want the engineer to stop the song. Same thing with the current single, “Best of You.” It boasts a respectable hook, but the execution is too shrill, too polished and too much like Nickelback and the other radio rockers that won’t let grunge die a dignified death. The first disc continues in cartoonish headbanging fashion on (note the titles) “DOA” and “Hell” as the quality of the tunes slips, and that combination accentuates the band’s self-inflicted one-dimensionality. When Grohl and Co. finally relax on the disc’s strongest song — the Cheap Trick-like “Resolve” — they prove what fans have known all along: It’s the sweet and sour together in the same song that gave Nirvana and then Foo Fighters the classic power-pop virtues that have differentiated them from their wanna-be’s.
The acoustic disc can also be measured against that truth. But the difference is that it’s a stronger set of songs, and Grohl’s giddiness at finally letting his soothing side rule is contagious. Because he brings influences and abilities not often heard in soft rock, Grohl is a more welcome, nuanced folkie than he is a metal god and he sings better than he screams. There’s plenty of Rubber Soul in “Miracle” and “Another Round,” which boast the piano and mandolin contributions of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. More striking is the presence of Norah Jones, whose confident coo merges cozily with Grohl’s fragile croon on the lounge jazz of “Virginia Moon,” to which she also contributes tinkling piano.
Some of Grohl’s lyrical shortcomings become exposed: The sameness and vagueness of his love lyrics blunt their impact. Grohl is comfortable chronicling messy relationships but rarely digs deep enough to share insight into who he is, even when the music suggests introspection.
Lurking in the background, once again, is the late Kurt Cobain. The comparisons between In Your Honor‘s Disc Two and Nirvana’s Unplugged are unavoidable, and Grohl doesn’t exactly run from them. The ruminative “Friend of a Friend” could be a coda to Nirvana’s “All Apologies”: It’s about someone who strums guitar in isolation, drinks too much and says “never mind.” “When he plays, no one speaks,” Grohl sings slowly.
The same thing isn’t true for Grohl: He’s more of an affable craftsman than a tortured artist, and he gets by with his solid songs, his hard work and his charisma. But all of those wear thin on In Your Honor, which could have been easily pruned down to one disc. For his next album, Grohl may want to take a step back from his band’s extremes: At the end of the day, he may just not be an extreme guy.