In real estate, there’s that old saying about “location, location, location.” Say the word five more times and you’ve got the big, romantic idea behind the eighth Foo Fighters album: Eight songs written and recorded in eight studios in eight American cities. Sonic Highways arrives with an eight-episode HBO series of the same name, which traces the band’s attempt to absorb the history and spirit of each town and fold them into the familiar Foos aesthetic. To frontman and series creator Dave Grohl, who caught the directorial bug with 2013’s Sound City documentary, place still matters.
But in making a series about how cities shape artists, Grohl wound up with an album about the unbendable force of the Foos’ sound. On opener “Something From Nothing,” cut in Chicago, he makes lyrical allusions to Buddy Guy and scores a guest spot from Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. The result, however, is neither classic blues nor chunky power-pop — just Grohl’s usual arena-scale alt-rock, albeit with a little extra lip-curling boogie.
The episode about Washington, D.C., and Inner Ear Studio in Arlington, Va., should be great, given Grohl’s connection to the local punk scene (he grew up in nearby Springfield, Va.). But the song, “The Feast and the Famine,” with gang vocals from members of Grohl’s pre-Nirvana outfit Scream, is a long way from the furious vintage thrash of Minor Threat or Bad Brains. Then there are the lyrics. Grohl searches for a “monument to the dreams we forget” and promises “a change will come,” hammering home the geographically appropriate political angle.
Overreaching lines like these are due largely to the group’s self-imposed rules on the album. When you have one song to sum up a city, you’ve got to use some overly broad language. Hence the bits about “marching in the second line” and “dancing with the spirits in the square” on “In the Clear,” born of a New Orleans session with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. But even in the Big Easy, the Foos don’t swing (though the horns make them sound like Bruce Springsteen’s new, much brassier E Street Band).
In the series, Grohl interviews everyone from President Obama to Dolly Parton and Macklemore. Had unlikely collaborators like the latter two — rather than the underutilized Zac Brown (Nashville) or Ben Gibbard (Seattle) — played on Sonic Highways, the album might have been more than just another rousing Foos record and a fun soundtrack to a cool TV show. Grohl is right: Local character does matter, but not when you’re global titans. Their music screams out to all cities – at the risk of speaking for none.