It’s been 20 years since Dave Grohl headed into a Seattle studio and recorded some songs he’d written during his time behind the kit in Nirvana. At the time, Foo Fighters were less a band than an informal solo project. But over the next few years, the guitars got bigger, the hooks grew to stadium scale – and an act that could have been just another one-off à la Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds has become quite possibly today’s most vital living, breathing rock & roll band.
On album after album, Grohl has figured out ways to keep moving forward, whether it was following 2002’s arena-rock breakthrough, One by One, with 2005’s acoustic-electric double LP, In Your Honor, or going back to analog for some live rust on 2011’s Wasting Light. This time, he’s built the concept of his 2013 documentary, Sound City – in which he brought heroes from Stevie Nicks to Tom Petty back to the L.A. studio where they made some of their most classic LPs – into a cross-country road trip of an album. During the past year, Grohl traveled to eight great American cities with an HBO crew, interviewing key figures ranging from punk icon Ian Mackaye in D.C. to Willie Nelson in Austin, and soaking up inspiration for Sonic Highways. These are songs about blood, sweat and evolution: The rapid-fire rocker “The Feast and the Famine” reflects on the Washington, D.C., riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the downbeat opener, “Something From Nothing,” cribs from Chicago blues great Buddy Guy’s story of his modest first instrument: “A button on a string/And I heard everything.”
Despite the high concept, this isn’t exactly a major overhaul for the Foos: The eight songs on Sonic Highways have the same monster guitar crunch, pummeling crescendos and hard-pleading bridges found on every album they’ve made this millennium. Local guests like Zac Brown (Nashville) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (New Orleans) mostly edge themselves into the well-established Foo sound. On “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness,” a bombastic Queen-meets-early-Beatles anthem, the usually thunderous tone of Austin guitar whiz Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t make much of a mark. But Joe Walsh elevates “Outside” – a diary of being trapped in pain and darkness – with a spaced-out solo that erupts into stormy apocalypse.
These songs are some of the band’s most ambitious moments yet. The closer, “I Am a River,” grows from sprawling to self-righteous over seven minutes, with Grohl getting emotional on top of an orchestra. On the other end of the spectrum is the low-key “Subterranean,” an abstract, Floyd-ish ballad about starting over after the end of a relationship that defines you – a subject Grohl knows a thing or two about. But there’s not enough here that’s as endearingly offbeat as the Foos’ early records, or as darkly thrilling as Wasting Light’s best songs. Grohl has said he considered making a more experimental record before declaring, “Fuck that.” It’s hard not to wish he’d taken a road that led to a little more adventure