Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways

Documentary-inspired new album sparkles, but loses a touch of its lustre in isolation.

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The Foos went to look for America. Frustrated that they were only getting glimpses of the cities they were touring, and inspired by the reaction to Dave Grohl’s documentary film about LA’s Sound City studios, they decided to visit eight US cities to investigate the people who make and record music there, and to write a song in each town.

The result is Sonic Highways, a journeyman album and HBO/BBC series that’s best consumed as a whole; listening to the album alone you miss the subtleties and local colour that Grohl infuses into his lyrics at the last minute, inspired by the conversations and studio environments.

Without the documentary element, the hints of bluesman guitar that open QOTSA-style Something From Nothing and its cryptic references might not suggest that the song follows the story of Buddy Guy’s emergence from the Chicago blues scene. Grohl bellowing ‘we’re burning for truth down on fourteenth and U’ amid the Thin Lizzy guitar chops of The Feast And The Famine doesn’t instantly recall the Washington riots in the wake of the murder of Martin Luther King.

With all the tracks produced by Butch Vig, there’s also little regional character to differentiate between the tracks, apart from the touches added by local guest musicians such as Joe Walsh or Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. The album alone is one hazy half of an engrossing audio-visual journey. Yet even dislocated from the TV show, Sonic Highways remains among the most concise and powerful Foos albums yet.

The spiralling hook-line of Congregation, a widescreen highway rocker referencing the churchy origins of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band coloured with a Creole jazz interlude, ranks alongside their catchiest riffs, while In The Clear and I Am A River are bona fide mountain-top showstoppers to rival My Hero. Even at its most indulgent – when the proggy strings and swampland guitars of Subterranean suggest a 70s ELO ballad, or when What Did I Do?/God As My Witness shifts from its lush, piano-led Sweet Home Alabama chug to an epic second half indebted to All You Need Is Love – it retains the Foos’ inherent charge and sizzle, albeit grown slick as a greaser’s quiff and imbued with a very adult strain of quasi-spiritual soul-searching.

‘God is my witness, he’s gonna heal my soul tonight,’ Grohl cries, and later, ‘there are days I might not make it’ and ‘my heart cannot do this alone’. While scouring the States for America’s musical soul, he’s also hunting out his own. Roll on the box set./o:p

Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.