The first thirty seconds of the Foo Fighters’ third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, are a bridge to singer Dave Grohl’s past: Drummer Taylor Hawkins pounds nails into his snare, Grohl’s guitar sounds sick with distortion and Nate Mendel’s Sumo-size bass belly-flops from the high diving board. And then the trio veers off toward less-familiar, and decidedly softer, terrain as Grohl wrestles with the post-grunge question of the moment: Could Evan Dando have had the right idea all along?
With the Lemonheads, Dando was the pinup boy for alterna-rock wimpiness, the mellowest, dreamiest ballad writer of the Nirvana generation, and perhaps the most reviled. Yet Dando-worthy singles such as the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name” and “Iris” provide irrefutable evidence that there are few quicker tickets to platinum for a former alt-rocker than a power ballad.
Grohl hasn’t been able to bring himself to write his answer to “Iris” just yet; his punk background makes him allergic to string sections. Instead, on There Is Nothing Left to Lose he tries to finesse a trickier strategy: Rather than embracing power-ballad excess, he attempts to sneak up on it. Besides a smattering of keyboards and the occasional tambourine, There Is Nothing Left to Lose is distinguished by its punky guitar-bass-drums directness. In almost every way it is a more modest effort than its predecessor, The Colour and the Shape, an album that wore out the Foo Fighters’ attack-dog, soft-then-loud approach.
If not quite as bold as its title implies, There Is Nothing Left to Lose nonetheless marks a departure, with greater emphasis on melody and actual singing. Once blessed with a vocal range that consisted of two tones — conversational and catastrophic — Grohl adopts a jazzy cadence on “Stacked Actors” and a hint of a twang on “Ain’t It the Life.” He sounds star-struck on “Aurora” and smitten on “Headwires.” He comes closest to touching the hem of Iris’ frock on the sappy “M.I.A.,” singing, “Getting lost in you again is better than being found.” But on “Learn to Fly,” the big guitars and arching melody crush all quibbles. Some grunge romantics may even hear it as a touching little hymn to his splintered former band. It’s that rare achievement: a guilt-free power ballad. Come back, Evan, all is forgiven.