Off the top of my head, I can think of two musical performers for whom I have high hopes, despite the fact that they have disappointed me a lot over the last few years. The first is Elvis Costello, who almost had me at Momofuku and then lost me again at Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. I have been told that last year’s National Ransom is good, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. The other performer is Dave Grohl, whose music has been the happy soundtrack to quite a bit of my life – as Nirvana’s drummer, as the Foo Fighters’ singer, and with his contribution to the Queens of the Stone Age album Songs for the Deaf. But since about 2005, with the release In Your Honor, I’ve been on a bit of a break from Grohl’s music.
Last year, Grohl played with Them Crooked Vultures (featuring his buddies John Paul Jones and Josh “Rhymes with Tommy” Homme) at Coachella. I tried really hard to like their album, but they forgot to write songs for it so I couldn’t quite pull that off. It was great to hear Grohl play live, though, and it reminded me that the dude is 1) an incredibly talented musician and 2) a seemingly likable guy (I say “seemingly” because I’ve never met the man, but every time I see or read an interview with him, he strikes me as a person of good humor and dignity).
So though my expectations are low for Wasting Light, Grohl’s new album with the Foo Fighters, I have to admit I almost desperately want to like it. The last really great Foo Fighters record, for me, was 1997’s The Colour and the Shape. Yes, it was an arena rock record (or what I like to call a Big Rock Record), but it showed off Grohl’s ability to write catchy pop songs and then dress them up like alternative rock radio hits. And the video for “Everlong” was rad as hell.
If you’ve felt the same way I have about the last few Foo Fighters albums, you might view Wasting Light as an almost shameless attempt to reestablish some manner of credibility – the album is produced by Butch Vig, it features guest appearances by Krist Novoselic (he was in one of the dead-end bands that Grohl played in before hitting the big time with the Foo Fighters) and Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould, and the packaging boasts that it was recorded directly to analog tape in Dave Grohl’s garage. For skeptics, the albums also comes with your very own slice of the master tape, tucked neatly into the booklet. Given my sunny disposition toward Mr. Grohl, I’m inclined to see these touches as signals of his earnest desire to return to making simple, primal rock music (and then destroy the masters!). In Your Honor and the one after it (the one with the long, stupid title) were definitely bloated from a production standpoint and the songs I heard were structurally similar to their 1990s stuff but without the same organic energy. So I’m going to give the Foo Fighters the benefit of the doubt on this one. Perhaps such a calculated shift to an “as live as possible” sound really helped them to get excited about making Wasting Light, which is the most energetic Foo Fighters release I’ve heard in years.
As I’ve said, Grohl used to be able to pen one helluva catchy chorus (even on the screamier songs like “Wind Up”), and he’s mostly found his way back to that on the new record. “Rope,” “Arlandria,” and “Back and Forth” are all pretty infectious and yet still radio-friendly in the way that songs like “Everlong” and “Monkeywrench” were. Though Grohl has boasted that no acoustic guitars were even seen around his garage during the recording of Wasting Light, it still has its ballady moments, including “These Days” and “I Should Have Known,” the latter of which will probably be assumed by lots of people to be about Kurt Cobain. I’m not going to assume that it is, because I feel really weird speculating about people’s feelings when they’ve lost a friend to suicide.
Maybe it’s a product of low expectations, but I quite enjoy Wasting Light. It’s the first Foo Fighters album since The Colour and the Shape (was that really 14 years ago? Sweet Zombie Jesus, it was) that I’ve wanted to listen to more than once. Sure, it can sound a little Queens of the Stone Age-y at times (especially on “Bridge Burning”), but that’s not really a bad thing. Grohl’s aesthetic is a little more poppy than Josh Homme’s and your enjoyment of Wasting Light might hinge on how much you think that’s a good thing. Foo Fighters fans who have found themselves either half-heartedly defending or ignoring (as I have) their last few records should be quite happy with it. It would be easy to say that Wasting Light is the Foo Fighters’ Accelerate, but that’s understating things a bit. Wasting Light, though not flawless, is better than Accelerate overall.
Grohl has made much in interviews about the unique sound you can get recording straight to tape, and he’s right. But that sound might be partly responsible for the fact that Wasting Light is a little light in terms of sonic diversity. That’s slightly offset by the violin and accordion parts on “I Should Have Known,” but basically, you can divide the album into Heavy Guitar Rock songs (“Bridge Burning,” “Rope,” and “White Limo”), Guitar Pop Rock songs (“Back and Forth” and “Walk”) and Patented Foo Fighters Power Ballads (“These Days” and “I Should Have Known”) and pick your favorites.
I find it kind of interesting that Dave Grohl starts Wasting Light screaming “These are my famous last words” and ends it on “Walk” by screaming “I never wanna die.” In fact, the now firmly middle-aged Grohl ponders death quite a bit on the album, telling “Dear Rosemary” that “youth ain’t gonna change the way you die.” I think it’s probably natural to take stock of things when you hit your forties (ask me again when I get there), because that’s a decade where you’re not young anymore but you’re certainly not old. That the Foo Fighters are still able to rock out in a satisfying way – and sound like they really enjoy doing it – at this point in their careers is, by my reckoning, pretty fucking awesome.
I didn’t really have an album in mind that I specifically hoped the Foo Fighters would make; I just knew I didn’t want to hear something like “Pretender” or “Best of You” ever again. Wasting Light’s worst songs beat those two clunkers by a damn sight and if it’s a little radio-friendly, so what? Nirvana was radio-friendly at one time, too. It doesn’t mean the music is bad. It means that, even with all the stupidity driving commercial rock radio these days, stations that usually bombard you with shit like Nickelback, Creed, and Papa Roach can occasionally slip up and play something listenable.