Review Summary: I’ve been hearing voices, none of them are you
There’s something fascinating about Foo Fighters’ place in the musical zeitgeist. After all, this is a band reliably churning out unremarkable (if decent) radio rock, with their best work almost exclusively decades in the past, that still manages to attract a substantial friendly audience even among the kind of hipsters and obscure genre aficionados who tend to predominate on the kind of websites frequented by music obsessives (hey, that kinda sounds like sputnikmusic.com). There are many reasons for this - Dave Grohl seems like a pretty cool guy, he still maintains some “cred” by association to Kurt Cobain, arguably the last true rock icon, even the band’s weaker material is at least “kinda good”, and 2011’s Wasting Light
seemed to signal a sudden renaissance in the band’s flagging fortunes and bought the band more time for many, even if that improved level of quality faded away again as quickly as it arrived. Still, though, it’s kinda weird - after all those years, and all those middling records (especially recently), there’s still a crowd willing to jam Foo Fighters’ latest effort, from the type of people that wouldn’t give the time of day to another act with a similar profile.
Well, now, let me put all my cards on the table, then. I’ve thought about this subject a fair bit, because I am one of those people. Foo Fighters were a key band in the beginning of my exploration of the contemporary rock scene, after initially focusing only on “classic” artists from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80’s. If I come back to them less, now, their early work is still pretty great, and The Colour And The Shape
comes pretty close to classic status. And yeah, Dave Grohl seems like a pretty cool guy. All of this to say that, even after three albums in a row which have been tenuously “decent” at best, I’m still on the Foo Fighters train for another record, albeit sometimes wondering why.
Now, we finally get to But Here We Are
. The album title is notably ambiguous. On the one hand, when assessed alongside a piece of artwork which appears to aim to be as nondescript as possible without being an entirely blank canvas, it seems like a throwaway phrase from a veteran band going through the motions: “well, it’s been a few years, better put out another record”. On the other hand, with Taylor Hawkins’ death last year, the title takes on a more poignant interpretation - an acknowledgement that one of the band’s longtime members is no longer with us, but that his bandmates are trying to continue their purpose by letting new music see the light of day.
Indeed, there’s no doubt that Hawkins’ death feels omnipresent even in the most cursory listen to But Here We Are
. Foo Fighters’ lyrics have never been particularly complex, and nothing’s changed here in that regard. A song like “Under You” contains lines like “someone said I’ll never see you again
”, almost cloyingly cliche but forgivable through coming across as equally heartfelt. At other times, though, the bluntness is highly effective, with the straightforward lyrics from “Hear Voices” quoted in the review summary feeling like a gut punch, while “The Teacher” unveils a series of rather compelling phrases - for example, “time won’t wait, the here and now will separate”
. All this is to say that, while on previous albums, Foo Fighters’ output might best be seen as simple rock songs, with the lyrics as (mostly) forgettable additives, on But Here We Are
they take on greater relative importance, without being particularly sophisticated. This album doesn’t exactly find a coherent mood, moving from outright sadness to defiance and back again, but it’s clearly best viewed through the lens of the grieving process, and there’s a certain visceral appeal to its tug at the heartstrings.
Outside of the broad theme of its narrative, But Here We Are
is a bit challenging to summarize (although Grohl manning the kit for the whole tracklist is notable). It’s a release which gravitates towards the more bombastic side of the band’s sound, although this isn’t universally the case. The album certainly seems to operate on a bit grander scope than Foo Fighters’ recent efforts - if it doesn’t have a sprawling geography-based concept like the (very disappointing) Sonic Highways
, it does have much more of an identity than the lifeless Concrete And Gold
and a significantly larger runtime than the slight Medicine At Midnight
. At forty-eight minutes in total, a majority of the tunes here are easily digestible, but it’s several of the longer songs which prove to be most distinguished. In particular, the closing duet of “The Teacher” (which is Foo Fighters’ lengthiest track ever
) and “Rest” are immensely satisfying. They don’t signal a full departure from the band’s signature formula, being replete with a radio-rock sound and loud/quiet/loud dynamics, but the more adventurous structures manage to enliven the listening experience to an impressive degree. The rest of the record is a bit more of a mixed bag, with several standouts (like “The Glass”, a traditional Foo Fighters ballad, but a pretty one, and “Nothing At All”, a satisfyingly punchy rocker) balancing out weaker material like the title track, which seems to fall into the band’s regular tendency towards “listenable but forgettable” territory, or opener “Rescued”, which demonstrates that Grohl’s singing-meets-shouting is still as elemental as ever, but lacks sufficient hooks to really pull off its aspirations.
All told, But Here We Are
feels like the sound of Foo Fighters getting up off the mat. The band did what they evidently felt they needed to do after Taylor Hawkins’ passing - to pour their energy into a creative project and blare a bunch of new tunes into the void. And, beyond that, they’ve managed to release their best album in over a decade (sadly, a less notable achievement than it sounds). While not reinventing the wheel, and still struggling with occasional blandness, there are plenty of moments here which simply provoke more excitement and emotion than I’ve felt from Foo Fighters’ music for a while - that aforementioned and touching line in “Hear Voices”, the guitar solo in “Beyond Me”, basically everything for all ten-plus minutes of “The Teacher”, and the affecting fadeout of “Rest” which ends the album: “In the warm Virginia sun, there I will meet you
”. While it’s been a long road for Foo Fighters to get to this point, and this album doesn’t quite match up to their most distant triumphs, these aging rockers have demonstrated here that some fire in the belly remains.