Eight songs, recorded in eight cities (hence the sleeve art), each with a different guest musician, and yielding eight quite different results. Conceptually, you’ve got to give it to Foo Fighters for finding a way to freshen up their working practices, after seven previous albums of steadily diminishing inspiration. But while the production of Butch Vig just about seals this eighth set as a coherent whole, certain songs drift on too long, oblivious to how they might work in an album context.
That’s a natural result of working on a single cut at a time: the sinew that comes from time spent together in a single location is missing. ‘Sonic Highways’ opens with the comparatively explosive ‘Something From Nothing’ a classic Grohl-into-a-froth affair, clear of visual metaphor, that treads its way into life with a steady pace before stamping its feet down and screaming at the sky. ‘The Feast And The Famine’ maintains this frenzied focus, but as soon as ‘Congregation’ steadies the frontman’s pulse and mops up the spittle, we’re firmly in middle-of-the-road territories, short on creativity and spot on the speed limit.
Nothing here represents a bad song – it’s just that many efforts miss a sweet spot that, once upon a time, Foo Fighters struck a good six or seven times per album. ‘What Did I Do’ / ‘God As My Witness’ outstays its welcome with a fade-down outro that lasts for a week, ‘In The Clear’ is the shortest track of the lot but feels like a halfway realised idea for a song stretched way too thin, and ‘I Am A River’, featuring a Tony Visconti string arrangement, is a turgid conclusion. It all adds up to a collection that, with some nipping here and tucking there, could have delivered twice the punch that it does.
Alright, it’s only 40 minutes in total, but personally – in the opinion of someone who once told his now-wife that Foo Fighters were better than Nirvana (apparently, as I can’t say I recall this naïve statement) – it’s at best an EP’s worth of reputation-reinforcing mid-paced rockers forced into the album format against its will. Lyrically, Grohl runs out of steam long before that closer’s numbing repetition of its title, and as a musical unit the band never once extends itself beyond expectations.
Eight songs, many of which feel too long; recorded in eight cities that don’t really leave their unique mark on the sonic side of the experience; each with a guest who is, at best, an apparition dancing in the shadows of the spot-lit stars; yielding eight largely forgettable arrangements that won’t make a dent on any fan’s all-time top 10. Perhaps for the first time ever, Dave Grohl sounds older than his years, and ‘Sonic Highways’ is Foo Fighters on rewind, self-satisfyingly nostalgic and disinterested with their audience. An audience that will hope this is the band’s one step back before taking another two forwards.
They “came from nothing”, in the words of that opener. And I guess, sometimes, you’ve got to back to square one to see how you can be something, again.
Words: Mike Diver
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