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November 10th marked both the release of Sonic Highways, the 8th album by perennial rock favorites Foo Fighters, as well as their 20th anniversary as a band — and, oh, what a strange tale that is. (Just watch the documentary Back & Forth about the Foo Fighters’ formation and growth up until 2011’s Wasting Light.) On their latest outing, the Foo Fighters have given us eight new songs recorded in eight different cities: Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, Seattle, and Washington D.C. With Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl and company are attempting to search out America and find influences in American music, all while filming the experience for HBO’s Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways series.
Consciously attempting to create a record that creatively melds one’s own style with eight different geographically and historically defined approaches in American music is a daunting task for any musician.
Such reverence for the history of music is not at all unheard of for musicians, especially highly respected musicians like Grohl, who has become a self-proclaimed purveyor of authenticity in music. One just needs to watch 2013’s Sound City — a documentary about the history of Sound City Studios (which produced several classic rock ‘n’ roll albums including Nirvana’s Nevermind) and the Neve 8028 analog sound board (which I wrote about here) — to hear Grohl’s thoughts on authenticity in music.
Paying heed to past generations and showing respect towards, and recognizing the failures of, those who came before is a central idea in the Bible. Take Deuteronomy 32:1-9 as an example: “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you” (v. 7). Though the central context here concerns the acts of the Lord throughout the generations and how each successive generation should know the nature of God through those actions, this concept of remembering those who have gone before in order to help direct one’s paths makes sense within the progressions of music, as well. All music comes from a wealth of history, tradition, and innovation. We know our place in it because we have a sense of what came before. To say we don’t need to understand what has come before is a rather high form of pride. Musicians have seldom been known to take this tack and Grohl is no different.
However, consciously attempting to create a record that creatively melds one’s own style with eight different geographically and historically defined approaches in American music is a daunting task for any musician — which is why such experiments, to this day, have not quite reached their full potential.
The best comparison, in recent memory, to the experiment that Grohl set out to do on Sonic Highways is the “50 States” project started by indie darling Sufjan Stevens — who quit after two albums and has since called the whole venture “such a joke.” Michigan and Illinois, considered some of the indie music scene’s great milestones, were Stevens’ attempt to explore the geographic and historical spaces of each state. They are terrific albums but they do not veer far away from Stevens’ rather unique mix of pop and classical sensibilities. The histories and lore of each state are merely a well from which Stevens can sip, lyrically.
Conceptually, Stevens’ albums would have felt more realized if his compositions had been more influenced by local musical flavors. If they were involved, then those flavors did not translate as clearly into the ears of listeners as they probably should have. Those musical influences would have given some heft to the rich, theologically interpreted stories that Stevens was telling.
Both states have singular monolithic genres to contend with: Michigan has the soulful shadow of Motown looming over the city of Detroit and Illinois has a secondary, but still significant, tie to the blues with the likes of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. And both of those cities have since developed their own flavors of hip hop, as well. (Some might say that hip hop is completely out of Stevens’ purview, but they would need to be directed to Sisyphus, his collaboration with Chicago’s Serengeti.) And these are only the states’ central musical offerings. Each of the state’s regions might have its own unique articulation of those offerings or their own that Stevens could have culled from.
The problem that comes in to the making of such conceptual albums is the struggle with being influenced by, learning from, and indulging in past styles while still maintaining a unique voice. When Eric Clapton did a whole album of Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson’s songs, Clapton was less interested in giving a unique interpretation of the songs than he was just doing faithful renditions of them. When there is no unique voice in the covers, one wonders why we wouldn’t just listen to the original recordings and call it good.
This is the same conceptual problem that rears its head on Sonic Highways, but unlike Sufjan Stevens, the Foo Fighters failed both musically and lyrically. Not only do the songs on Sonic Highways not feel any different from other Foo Fighter songs — or contend with the best in the Foo Fighters’ catalog — but the lyrics, too, don’t really capture any of the geographic atmospheres of the cities where the songs were recorded. I even had to be alerted to the fact that the album contains special appearances by such greats as Joe Walsh (The Eagles) and Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) because their presence is almost negligible.
For instance, take the track, “Congregation” which features Zac Brown — where, I’m not sure I could tell you — and is recorded at Brown’s studio, Southern Ground. If I had to pick a highlight, this track might be one, but considering this song is supposed to encompass the musical and geographical narrative of Nashville, it ultimately fails to do either justice. Instead, it sounds like it could have been a solid B-side to the Foo Fighters’ last album, Wasting Light. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’s instrumental track, “The Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners,” with its dueling acoustic guitars, would have made more sense (musically, at least) within this geographical setting, considering Nashville’s rich singer/songwriter, bluegrass, and country atmosphere. The lyrics, too, only give a very vague and surface-level nod to the deeper religious undertones that color and drive that segment of the States.
This is the issue that is found throughout the duration of Sonic Highways: with all of the build-up and publicity surrounding the concept and experiment that Grohl and company had embarked on, it really doesn’t seem like their journey sunk in deep enough to really impact either the band’s music or the thematic and linguistic flavor of Grohl’s lyrics. Instead, they vied to sound distinctly like the Foo Fighters and not at their best either.
In the end, I find myself agreeing with the New York Times‘ conclusion:
…on the album, beyond the agitated first two songs — “Something From Nothing” and “The Feast and the Famine” — he’s doing roughly the opposite [of the HBO series]: burrowing deeper than ever into starchy, expensive-sounding, multipartite stadium rock, FM radio sounds of the late 1970s and ’80s. The music transmits a desire to belong to outmoded centers of power.
If there seems to be a contradiction between the documentary and the album, there’s also a connection between them. Anxieties necessitate safe places. The show represents the anxiety, the album the safe place.
According to the Deuteronomy passage above, each generation of Israel was reminded, over and over again, by their God to remember their ancestors who went before them, to learn from them, and to then move forward in their own faith and work out their salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). The deep historical connection they felt to those who had gone before speaks volumes to the ongoing experiment that musicians perform to understand the richness of American music, both historically and geographically. And while I admire Grohl and company’s pursuit, they weren’t listening hard enough to those musical ghosts in order to learn from them and illuminate their own musical journey. Hopefully, the Foo Fighters will continue their search and, one day, find their place in the American musical landscape, but Sonic Highways is, ultimately, a dead end.
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