Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways

Soundtrack to a documentary about cities inspiring a soundtrack

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Recorded in eight different cities in eight different studios and telling eight different stories, is the Foo Fighters' eighth album a coherent concept or a monumental mess? Here's what we learnt.

The album is only about a third of the story

Sonic Highways is an album, documentary series and existential road-trip of rock’n’roll discovery. Deciding they never got the chance to really explore the towns they toured through, Foo Fighters set out to record their ninth album in eight different cities, while Dave Grohl further indulged his role as the mixing desk Morgan Spurlock (last year he directed a documentary about the legendary Sound City studios) by making an HBO docu-series along the way, exploring the musical history of each city and studio and then recording a song there with last-minute lyrics referencing what he’d learned. It’s kind of a muso’s edu-Monkees.

Each episode colours its accompanying song

When Grohl howls “we’re burning for truth down on 14th and U” between Thin Lizzy riffs on the furious The Feast And The Famine, you need to watch the episode to explain its reference to the Washington riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. Likewise, without the show explaining his links to Fuse records and the instruments he forged using just buttons and string, you’d have to be Jack White to discern these subtle lyrical nods to the rise of Buddy Guy in Chicago that are dotted through desert rocker Something From Nothing. Listening to the album on its own is like watching La Dolce Vita with the subtitles off.

That said, it still rocks

And it rocks like a game of comet conkers. Outside channels Pixies’ most narcotic depths, In The Clear is Foreigner AOR pop turned up to 11 (megatons, that is) and I Am A River sounds like it could bite off mountaintops, epic and overblown even for the band that launched the rock zeppelin that was My Hero. The tone of the tracks is often led by the local guest musicians – as Grohl bawls “open your eyes!” full of Pentecostal damnation, Congregation twists from Springsteen freeway rock to a New Orleans jazz interlude courtesy of the Preservation hall Jazz Band, while What Did I Do?/God As My Witness is sand-blasted with southern Californian trucker vibes by Eagles’ Joe Walsh. Hence, Sonic Highways is something of a document and national treasure; from swampland voodoo to religious heartland to canyon yowl to sweet home Alabama, from sea to shredding sea, all of American rock is here, vehemently celebrated.

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.