The best Foo Fighters songs always work exactly like Dave Grohl wants them to: Joy-buzzer power-pop hooks, thickly packaged guitars, a couple of throat-shredding screams—since he started the project in 1994, he has never shown much interest in doing something trickier. In this steady, somewhat plodding way, he’s built catalog deep enough for a greatest hits album and earned the mantle of World’s Most Okay Rock Band. What the Foos don’t offer in inspiration, they make up for it with durability and dependability. Hot dog, squirt of relish, daub of mustard, squishy bun—you make it the same way every time for a reason.
But over the last ten years, listening to Foo Fighters has begun to feel more like watching the Food Network than eating: You mostly yearn for what you’re not getting. As Grohl embraced his Ambassador of Rock role, joining awards show lineups and one-offs by the handful, his own music grew mushier and grainer. By 2014’s Sonic Highways, recorded as part of a documentary series traversing the country’s regional rock scenes, the transformation was complete: Foo Fighters albums were Dave Grohl’s enthusiastic PSAs about the life-changing power of other people’s rock music.
Concrete and Gold is their ninth album, and like Sonic Highways, it comes with an outsized goodwill gesture accompanying it: Grohl announced its release date along with the launch of a huge festival, a modern-rock update to the 1974 Cal Jam. He also recently revealed that he was planning to record the album in front of a live audience, before PJ Harvey’s similar Hope Six Demolition Project discouraged him. Nearly all new Foos albums come with one of these PR flourishes now, a near-tacit admission that a new album of Foo Fighters songs might not be news enough for anybody, even Grohl. But maybe having one of his campaigns derailed helped Grohl focus a bit: Concrete and Gold feels more interested in the granular details of rock songwriting and craft of rock album-making than anything the Foos have made in years.
The album begins with a faux-humble, aw-shucks bit of Grohllery: Over a few finger-picked acoustic guitar notes, he croons: “I don’t wanna be king/I just wanna sing a love song/Pretend there’s nothing wrong/You can sing along with me.” Seconds later comes the chandelier-shattering full band entrance, with a stack of vocal harmonies tall enough to demolish the Paradise Theatre. The flourish announces the polishing touch of Greg Kurstin, member of The Bird and the Bee and a pop producer flexible and collaborative enough for both Adele’s “Hello” and Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE.”
Kurstin’s touch helps inject some flavor into the empty carbs larding Grohl’s songwriting, which remains a series of enthusiastic gestures that sometimes trip over each other. First single “Run” has one of Grohl’s biggest choruses in years, the kind of thing I would gladly holler along to in a stadium, and Kurstin sweetens it nicely with synth and piano. But the song lurches like a three-legged chair between that chorus and a gut-churning two-note riff paired with Grohl’s post-hardcore screaming, a battle between Snow Patrol and Chavez that no one wins.
No one could question Grohl’s grasp of rock history, but moments like this remind you that there is a slightly weightless, Lego Movie feel to his use of it. On the goofy and invigorating Farfisa organ-greased boogie rock “Make It Right,” this works to his advantage: It makes me think of Kid Rock, until it makes me think of Aerosmith’s “Last Child,” until it makes me think of KISS. “Hop on the train to nowhere, baby!” Grohl exhorts, forever unafraid of a t-shirt slogan, and Kurstin boosts the hi-hat until it sounds like it’s made from ten tons of iron. “The Sky Is a Neighborhood,” meanwhile, lands in some alt-rock uncanny valley between Eve 6’s “Inside Out” and “Where Is My Mind?”, a territory as nonsensical as the song title. But Grohl builds a big old rafter-raising chorus there anyway, and as it often does, his enthusiasm makes it go over. It’s all rock‘n’roll to him.
There are all kinds of guests floating by as usual: Alison Mosshart of the Kills guests on “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” and “La Dee Da.” Shawn Stockman, of Boyz II Men, harmonizes on “Sunday Rain.” Hell, Paul McCartney pops in to play drums on “The Line.” Grohl told Rolling Stone that Justin Timberlake dropped by the studio one day, but Timberlake remains uncredited, leaving us in the dark, since everyone on a Foo Fighters album sounds like Foo Fighters. That holds as true for Bob Mould, who appeared on 2011’s Wasting Light, as it does here for smooth jazz saxophonist Dave Koz, who turns up somewhere, entirely inaudibly, on “La Dee Da.”
Grohl having fun is usually preferable to him flipping the chair around and getting serious, but there are some affecting moments on C&G. Years have belting and screaming have finally put a few notes of grain in his eternally boyish tenor, and on “Sunday Rain” his vocal take bears a startling resemblance to End of the Innocence-era Don Henley. “Happy Ever After (Hour Zero),” the album’s best song, is a real ballad, not the foot-dragging, somber face he usually pulls when he goes quiet. “There ain’t no superheroes now/They’re underground” he sings jauntily, over a little dancehall bounce. The song is wry, winsome, acidic; unlike most Foo Fighters songs, it sounds like one person wrote it to express a single, legible emotion, parceling out feeling in a beaker instead of from a bucket. Most miraculously, it fades out before any windmilling power chords can wreck the mood.
Rock music has had few ambassadors as affable and tireless as Grohl, and over twenty years on, it remains impossible to dislike the Foo Fighters. Enjoying them, is a spottier proposition, and loving them seems to be out of the question. There are boring Foo Fighters albums and pretty good ones; C&G is a pretty good one, and in two years there will probably be another. Grohl has spent his entire career arguing for rock music’s ability to transcend and change lives, but his own music sends a different, sadder message: Rock doesn’t have to be transcendent or life-changing at all, and all your fantasies can be rendered just as dull and workaday as the rest of your life.