Few artists make the business of being in a hugely successful rock band seem as breezy and straightforward as Foo Fighters. In their world, there never seems to be much in the way of angst or agonising or artistic differences – three things frontman Dave Grohl presumably had enough of to last a lifetime while he was in Nirvana – just an endless succession of platinum albums, magazines featuring Grohl’s face inevitably gurning good-naturedly from the cover and mammoth gigs, where their evident delight in playing live manifests itself in an inability to stop once they’ve started. There were moments during their headlining slot at this year’s Glastonbury when it seemed as if the only way Michael Eavis was going to get them offstage was with the aid of a bulldozer.
And yet, their recent albums seem to have spoken, at least under their breath, of a certain kind of rock star ennui: the struggle to keep yourself interested when there’s nothing else to struggle for, when your career has plateaued, albeit at an impressively high altitude. Back-to-basics recording sessions in a garage (Wasting Light); touring America’s most famous music cities and recording a song in each, with support from a celebrated local musician (2014’s Sonic Highways): these are the kind of wheezes you might come up with were you plagued by the spectre of declining inspiration and diminishing returns, the creeping fear you may already have said all you have to say. They’re obviously more ingenious ideas than the one bands in their position usually come up with, which involves gritting your teeth and insisting against all odds that your new album is the best you’ve ever made. But it all raises the question: what next?
Concrete and Gold originally came with another grand concept attached: the idea was to build a complete studio onstage at the Hollywood Bowl and record an album in one night in front of a 20,000-strong audience, a plan scuppered by PJ Harvey’s decision to record last year’s Hope Demolition Project in a glass box at Somerset House. Instead, the band have opted to work with pop producer Greg Kurstin, an unlikely choice: Grohl has recounted having to play Kurstin’s most famous co-write, Adele’s Hello, to nonplussed guitarist Pat Smear, who’d apparently never heard it before, a not-unimpressive feat in itself. The album’s supporting cast, meanwhile, offers impressively eclectic testament to Grohl’s famed ability as a networker – it includes Justin Timberlake, the Kills’ Alison Mosshart and Shawn Stockman of 90s R&B sensations Boyz II Men.
Grohl has likened the end result to both “Motörhead’s version of Sgt Pepper” and “Slayer making Pet Sounds”. If that often seems even more hyperbolic than it’s intended to be – as on Arrows or The Line, when Concrete and Gold sounds exactly like the Foo Fighters usual anthemic pop-rock, except with a few psychedelic effects thrown in – you occasionally take his point, or at least something like it. Run repeatedly flips between a lysergic expansiveness and raw-throated metal. The ghost not of Sgt Pepper but the White Album haunts both The Sky is a Neighbourhood and Happy Ever After (Zero Hour) – the former a kind of steroidal take on the taut, twilit sound of Happiness is a Warm Gun, the latter based around an acoustic guitar figure that recalls Mother Nature’s Son – while there’s a pleasure to be had listening to Sunday Rain, which features Paul McCartney drumming behind a song absolutely stuffed with knowingly McCartney-esque melodic twists and turns. The closing title track, meanwhile, attempts to weld the tumbling, harmony-laden euphoria of Pink Floyd’s Eclipse to the Soviet state-funeral tempo of early Black Sabbath. It’s a weird recipe that doesn’t quite work – leaden euphoria is a tough thing to pull off – but it’s indicative of an admirable urge to think a little outside of the box.
But the album’s most improbable set of musical references turn up in the lyrics. The first time you hear the words “White House” in La Dee Dah, the obvious assumption is that it’s a reference to the Trump presidency, which hangs, obliquely, over much of an album big on expressions of defiance and despair (“I just want sing a love song and pretend there’s nothing wrong,” offers opener T-Shirt). But no, it turns out Grohl means Whitehouse, the controversial power-electronics band of My Cock’s On Fire and Shitfun fame. La Dee Dah is a curious pen portrait of the alienated teenage Grohl, lost in post-industrial music and its attendant antiheroes: it also namechecks Psychic TV, the Reverend Jim Jones and the profoundly rum, Nazi-obsessed Death in June.
This is clearly a deeply unlikely thing for a stadium rock album virtually guaranteed platinum sales to do, but for the most part, Concrete and Gold sees the Foo Fighters gently and enjoyably nudge at the boundaries of what they do, rather than crashing through them to new territory. It’s an album that won’t frighten the horses, but provides enough fresh interest to keep the band ticking over: for the Foo Fighters, you suspect, that means mission accomplished.