Lucky Number Eight: Foo Fighters Ride the Rails with Sonic Highways

A band at the top of their game tries to embrace the future
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It’s been hard not to notice the Foo Fighters lately. In case you missed the memo the band just released Sonic Highways, their much-anticipated eighth studio album. It comes with an eight episode HBO documentary series of the same name. The show follows Dave Grohl and Co. as they travel the country, with each episode focusing on a different city where the band interviews local music icons and records an original song. For all its journeying, Sonic Highways isn’t much of a sonic departure for the band.

Sonic Highways is a pleasant record. Though not as adventurous as anything they released before the turn of the millennium, the album is full of the winning hooks, bombastic drums, and crunchy guitars that have become their trademark. Grohl’s wails on “The Feast and the Famine” recall the mood of The Colour and the Shape. Other tracks like “What Did I Do/God as My Witness” and “Subterranean” reflect the sensitivity of the band’s more recent offerings. Just don’t spend too much time trying to imagine them representing the rich histories of their featured cities.

The guests, for their part, don’t really stand out. They end up wedged in the margins of an established Foo Fighters formula. For the Chicago episode, the band talks about Buddy Guy and records a track about coming from nothing, but we would’ve been thrilled to hear them cover Buddy Guy or approach the blues in their own way. Foos do Blues? Dave, start rehearsing your Grammy acceptance speech.

Where exactly is a band like Foo Fighters supposed to go? Grohl is a rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Famer, the band has four Grammys, they can headline most any festival, and they can pull Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Page, and Paul McCartney out of their digital Rolodexes. This is not a band fighting for legitimacy or relevance, so this odyssey in some ways is about a band at the pinnacle of their game trying to embrace their future in one of the few ways they haven’t. To that end, Sonic Highways is a success.

Grohl’s passion for making music, his reverence for his heroes, and his care in attaching a meaningful narrative to each project—whether he’s bringing his idols together to celebrate Sound City Studio or going analog on Wasting Light—are still appreciated. Foo Fighters have become masters of making the journey interesting, but the destination matters, too.

At times, listening to Sonic Highways without watching the series feels like listening to a movie soundtrack without ever seeing the film it inhabits; it does both a disservice. But this is a Foo Fighters record, after all, and those who have enjoyed the ride for the last two decades won’t be disappointed.

This could’ve been the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll road trip, but to do that it needed to detour into uncharted territory.

Catch the HBO series Sonic Highways on Fridays at 11 p.m. or any time on HBO Go.

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