When Dave Grohl sings, “I See Your Ghost,” in the first song on One by One, it’s impossible not to think about Kurt Cobain. Grohl has now spent more years as the Foo Fighters’ singer and guitarist and has made more studio albums (four) with them than he did as Nirvana’s drummer. Yet he knows as well as anyone that his band will never be as earth-shaking as Nirvana were.
The grunge that Grohl pounded into shape in Nirvana now dominates the rock airwaves. It may be textured with hip-hop or pop or punk, but the self-doubt, raspy vulnerability, down-tuned guitars and volcanic crescendos of grunge are omnipresent. Grohl’s task, which he has taken on with grace and persistence, is to make rock that sets its own stakes high and doesn’t get stuck looking back. “I’m done done/On to the next one!” he shouts in “All My Life.”
He hasn’t retreated from the existential battles of grunge. Through four albums, the Foo Fighters’ songs have grappled with what to make of uncertainty and betrayal, of emptiness and random fury. But where Nirvana’s songs revolved around Cobain’s boundless loneliness, Grohl sings about connections with other people. “Down and out again/But I’m down with you,” he promises in “Lonely As You.”
Nirvanologists may be tempted to hear One by One as Grohl’s reflections on the band and its aftermath. By that reading, “Low” could be a snarl at Courtney Love (“I’m hanging on you, baby blue”), while “Halo” suggests a glimpse of Cobain: “You pray you’re gonna make it/And then when you’re done you keep fucking up.” In “Lonely As You,” Grohl sings, “Blame it on the past/It’s the last place I knew you.”
Whatever their genesis, the songs are stronger and broader than autobiography. They could apply to all kinds of tempestuous relationships, including romance, as One by One churns up some unabashed love songs. “Tired of You,” featuring guitar glissandos from Queen’s Brian May, has a pained promise: “I won’t go getting tired of you.” The more jubilant “Overdrive” vows, “We’re going life or death,” and “Burn Away” tells “my bride” that the newlyweds will “burn away from all the other flames” — wedding planners, take note.
In their music, Foo Fighters have neither fled grunge nor let it confine them. Taylor Hawkins on drums is nearly as explosive as, well, Dave Grohl, and the band’s latest lead guitarist, Chris Shiflett, has traded distortion for clarity without losing any impact. Potent guitar riffs define every song on One by One: furious tremolos ricocheting across the stereo in “Low,” twangy New Wave dissonances in “Have It All,” warm folk-rock strumming in “Halo,” implacable one-chord repetition in “All My Life” and those faithful descending grunge progressions in “Lonely As You” and “Tired of You.”
Grohl still pushes his mild-mannered voice toward the throat-tearing rasp that came more naturally to Cobain. Yet the Beatles, Neil Young and Husker Du mean as much to the Foos as grunge progenitors such as the Melvins. In “Times Like These,” with major-key guitars surging around his unguarded voice, Grohl rightly name-checks a Husker Du album when he sings, “I’m a new day rising.”
The album’s finale, “Comeback,” brings back Nirvana’s combination of march and ballad, complete with fuzzed guitars, converging vocal harmonies and an instrumental section that builds and builds. “Dead on the inside, I’ve got nothing to prove/Keep me alive and give me something to lose,” Grohl sings, then lets loose his grunge howl to roar, “I will come back!” He might be singing about a reunion with a lover or a grunge resurrection, and in the end it makes no difference: It’s rock that draws power from its determination to struggle onward.