In honor of their 20th anniversary as a band, the Foo Fighters decided to celebrate by reassessing their songwriting process. Traveling to musical meccas across America—Chicago, Washington D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York City—rock’s loudest, merriest pranksters met with local legends to discover how each region’s music affected its identity. The Foos waited until their last day of tracking each city to write the lyrics, soaking up every cultural influence until the last possible chance. While these songs turned into the eight tracks on Sonic Highways, the band’s travels also yielded the excellent, engaging Dave Grohl-directed eight-episode HBO series of the same name. Unfortunately, the story behind Sonic Highways succeeds far more than its resultant music.
Somehow, Sonic Highways manages to dilute the Foos’ sound without pronouncing the guest artists’ contributions enough. The chunky rock elements that have become signature Foo Fighters remain consistent throughout Sonic Highways and are exemplified in lead single and opening track “Something from Nothing,” featuring Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen on the baritone guitar. But beyond not-so-subtle lyrical hints, the links between cities and songs are nearly indistinguishable. In fact, better examples of some of the cited influences can be found throughout the band’s extensive back catalog. In the Nashville song, for example, country singer Zac Brown is credited with “Devil Pickin’” throughout “Congregation.” However, the Foos’ “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” (written by Grohl and performed by Kaki King) off 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace sounds more like a song influenced by country thumpin’. Later, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie contributes vocals on Seattle’s “Subterranean,” but that grunge influence can be felt more (in quantity and authenticity) on any track from 1995’s Foo Fighters. Throughout the record, Gary Clark Jr. plays lead guitar on Austin song “What Did I Do/God As My Witness;” The Eagles’ Joe Walsh performs on the Los Angeles-inspired “Outside,” recorded in Joshua Tree; the famous New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band appears on “In the Clear.” It’s just that these collaborations wouldn’t be noticeable without greater context.
While the band and management are careful not to peg Sonic Highways as the soundtrack to the cable television series, the Foo Fighters’ eighth studio LP certainly remains a concept album and requires that lens to be appreciated fully. Taken on its own, Sonic Highways definitely won’t be the most-played record of the Foo Fighters’ discography. But consumed with its corresponding multimedia parts, Sonic Highways demands respect for its impressive collaborations and creative conceptualization and production.