To better understand Dave Grohl’s iconic, 20-year-old post-Nirvana band and its latest album, Sonic Highways, sometimes it’s helpful to consider the Four Noble Truths of the Foo Fighters: (1) They’ll never write better songs than they did in the 1990s, (2) Even their worst songs are pretty damn good, (3) They’ve done pretty much everything at this point and so experiments like Highways, in which they recorded each of the album’s songs in eight different American cities with an amazing array of guests, are about the only route for them to take, and (4) “Best of You” is their best song, even though it’s from 2005 and violates the first Noble Truth.
Highways is a serviceable record released in conjunction with the excellent HBO documentary that carries a similar name. The fact that it’s not an amazing album is just plain disappointing given the array of talent at hand including contemporary country/folk great Zac Brown, rock legend Joe Walsh, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, indie rock genius Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service and even the mind-blowing blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr, all joining the band in their respective hometowns.
Regarding the First and Second Noble Truths, these songs, like most on releases since 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, do not rise to the level of memorable and catchy. They certainly don’t have the cultural or personal impact of the band’s first six years. They’re well played and have some very redeeming moments that expose a level of humanity that a good chunk of rock no longer has, but they’re not even in the band’s Top 20 songs.
Highways taps especially into the final two Noble Truths, though. After seven albums which sold more than 11 million units, a project of this scale is a logical step. On 2012’s Wasting Light, former Nirvana producer Butch Vig helped the band with its return to an all-analog recording process. In 2005, In Your Honor toyed with a yin-yang, two-disc concept album with a heavy side and an acoustic side. This is a project only a band of this stature, institutional quality and ancestry could even attempt, let alone execute even remotely well.
One profoundly positive quality of Highways is its energy, which taps directly into the life force of “Best of You,” by far the band’s most accomplished work of art and one that is a testimony to all the Foo Fighters represent: raw emotion, technical skill and minimal bullshit.
Songs like “Something from Nothing,” recorded in Chicago with Nielsen, “Congregation,” committed to tape in Nashville with Brown, and “I Am a River,” recorded in New York with incomparable David Bowie producer Tony Visconti and singer-songwriter Kristeen Young, combine the band’s best qualities and save the entire record from merely being sufficient.
In the wake of this fascinating and sometimes rewarding experiment, perhaps the band’s next step will be that last bastion of aging rock bands on the cusp of a hiatus: going back to their roots. It would be interesting to get another Foo Fighters album with Grohl playing all the parts, simply to see if he could do it anymore. Or it would be fun to hear an album inspired by that do-it-yourself spirit with the crew in tow.
Either way, as long as the Foo Fighters avoid re-recording their classics, or embarking on a series of covers of other people’s classics, things will be just fine.