Foo Fighters: But Here We Are [Album Review]

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Foo Fighters
But Here We Are
Roswell/RCA Records [2023]

Arriving a few months over a year from the unexpected, tragic death of drummer Taylor Hawkins, the 11th album from Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters is dripping with grief, an emotion no doubt heightened by the death of his 84-year-old mother, Virginia Grohl, last August. Throughout the history of modern music, some of the most powerful blues, rock and pop songs come from brokenhearted artists, whether it’s over a lost love or the death of loved one. Neil Young famously wrote the classic rock protest gem “Ohio,” within days of hearing about the Kent State death of four students by the National Guard and then recorded the grief-stricken live album Tonight’s the Night, while mourning the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and a member of his road crew, Bruce Berry. Albums like “Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seed, Funeral by Arcade Fire, and The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips, all find artists creating some of their strongest work in the face of death and loss.

When tragedy upsets our lives, we often return to what we know best, the things that have sustained and encouraged us in our the past. And on the opening track and first single release of But Here We Are, “Rescued” we hear Dave Grohl back behind the drum kit, as well as singing lead and playing the acoustic guitar opening, much the way he recorded the Foo Fighters’ eponymous debut album in 1995, playing all the instruments himself. In many ways, the song echoes a return to the harder rocking Foo Fighters sound that dominated in their biggest early hits, and at the heaviest moments—during the pre-chorus as he wails “are you feeling what I’m feelin’?/This is happening now—if you listen to the drum tracks as the tension builds, Grohl sounds like he’s playing full out. Sometimes it just feels good to hit something, hard. But then the sound opens up and Grohl sings the song’s vocal hook, the passionate lyric that “We’re all free to some degree to dance under the lights/I’m just waiting to be rescued, bring me back to life.” And then the guitars are back, but again I’m drawn to the rollicking rumble of the drums driving them into the repeated chorus as the vocal builds to a howl as it repeats the plea to “rescue me tonight.”

That sense of a heavy storm cloud carries into “Under You,” which again has a swarm of hard hitting rhythm guitars around the driving bass and drums that drive the song’s fast vocal line: “There are times that I need someone/There are times I feel like no one/Sometimes I just don’t know what to do,” before letting the rage and sorrow relent in the realization that “there’s no getting over it.” While Grohl and producer Greg Kurstin whip up a deep grinding stew of guitars, but there in the mix you can hear a melodic lead line, likely played by third guitarist Chris Shiflett. The song’s intensity is in the dynamic rhythm and the passionate vocal ‘s hope to “come out from under you,” to move passed the overwhelming sense of grief and loss.

And so it goes, the grief is something we carry like a burden, and in “Hearing Voices,” Grohl mourns that “none of them are you,” because there’s “no one quite like you.” And then, perhaps calling out to his mother, he pleads over the song’s piano coda, “speak to me, my love.” The song’s less rage filled and angsty than the opening tracks, but even here the underlying tensions remain unrelieved. The album’s title track, which begins sounding like a punchy pop/rock thinking that you might be able to “lay your burden down, turn yourself around,” but the song builds as the realization settles in that the pain remains, “I gave you my heart, but here we are,” as the intensity of the guitars and drums pound home the unrelenting fact that this grief is “not an illusion,” eliciting a scream as the guitar solo echoes the vocal’s emotion.

Hearing these four opening tracks back to back, you get the sense of how impactful these songs must be for this six-piece band to play live; Grohl back up front on guitar with new touring drummer Josh Freese, who was a friend of Hawkins and played with the band at the two Tribute Concerts in 2022, with long-time associate Pat Smear—who’d  played with Grohl all the way back in Nirvana—on guitar as well as Shiflett, bassist Nate Mendel, Rami Jaffee (The Wallflowers) on keyboards. In many ways this is the strongest opening to a Foo Fighters album since Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace in 2007.

And while the music transitions some, the emotional intensity barely relents. “The Glass” is the first track that maintains it’s bluesy pop/rock vibe through to the end, drawing on the metaphor of a mirror and the common experience of the lingering presence of one who has recently died. “I had a vision of you/and just like that/I was left to live without it.” The less rage-filled rhythms open up the space for the guitar leads to shine out, yet Grohl’s vocals remain powerful, perhaps because his lyrics here tap deep emotions, and get at something substantive and real about the human experience he’s describing, as he faces the fact that life will indeed go on without the person you lost, but life will never be as it was before. “Nothing At All” hints at the funky pop that Grohl was playing around with on singles like “Shame Shame” from the previous album, but with the realization that “it’s too late” for “peace of mind,” the angst and rage return as the song taps that earlier energy as the singer rants “it’s everything or nothing at all.”

“Show Me How” is a transitional song on the album, a dream-pop melodic track that apparently is sung to David’s mother, urging her “don’t you worry, please don’t worry/I’ll take care of everything,” something a child recognizes has now fallen to them when the previous generation has passed on. It’s fitting here that Grohl is joined on vocal harmonies and some leads at the song’s end by his daughter Violet. There’s a gentle warmth expressed here, perhaps an acknowledgement that his mother had lived a long, full life, unlike the sudden unexpected death of Hawkins. “Beyond Me,” a traditional piano ballad power/pop song, finds Grohl reckoning with the fact that “everything we love must go… so I’m told/you must release what you hold dear, so I fear.” But he finds this mysterious aspect of human existence beyond understanding, but the traditional format allows for a burst of a guitar solo.

No doubt with the longer, 10-minute “Teacher,” we are reminded that Grohl’s mother Virginia not only taught school, but in 2017 she released a book “From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars,” to which Dave wrote the forward. Here, in a variety of musical moments, he attempts to come to terms with her passing, wondering what lessons remain for her to teach him. At a touching moment halfway through, he sings to her, “every page turned/it’s a lesson learned in time/you showed me how to breathe/show me how to say goodbye?” As the song turns toward its conclusion, and he imagines living forward “breath by breath,” the guitars and drums grow in intensity, briefly hinting at the “insane prog-rock record” Grohl had suggested might be the direction for the next Foo Fighter’s album, before the shit hit the fan and his bandmate and obviously close friend, Hawkins was suddenly taken from him and the band.

The final track here is “Rest,” as in the traditional Latin phrase “requiescat in pace,” R.I.P., and the song begins just as the title suggests, a quietly strummed acoustic guitar, Grohl’s voice in a hushed whisper, as he sings a final lullaby: “Waking up, bottom of an empty cup/laying in your favorite clothes/chosen just for you.” He sings of “books of faded photographs/moments saved for you,” but he wishes for her “rest/you can rest now/rest/you will be safe now.” But as he comes to terms with the fact that “love and trust/life is just a game of luck/all this time escaping us/until our time is through,” at which point the big rock guitars and drums return, cutting through the quiet even as the vocals return to the theme of “rest,” perhaps exposing the inner tension and musical inclination of Grohl and Co., who are first and always a rock band. The song again in time returns to that peaceful acoustic sound as Grohl offers up this fare-thee-well: “Waking up, I had another dream of you/In the warm Virginia sun, there I will meet you.”

For good or for ill, Foo Fighters more recent albums have exhibited a listlessness, wanting to explore fresh territory but at times lacking the musical vocabulary to pull off an R&B flavored song, or the decisive commitment to delve fully into funk, and while lyrics were never Grohl’s strongest talent, of late they lacked a sense of purpose or meaning beyond the song’s text. Here, on But Here We Are, Grohl has been forced to look at how fragile, how temporary, how unreliable life is for many of us, and it’s pushed him back to the music of his youth, the resilient punk, the liberating feel of rock rhythms and the aggressive release of guitars in attack mode, and attach to that music the deepest fears, hurts, and losses any person can know, the death of a beloved one, or two. As much as we might wish that suffering away, we cannot help but notice how it clarifies one’s vision of what’s important, what matters, what is worth caring about, and certainly we can recognize here in this grief-stricken 11th album from the Foo Fighters, how they’ve been able to respond that the raw emotion of those hurtful losses and create music that is honest, affirming, caring, and true. In the end, these songs become redemptive, because they give voice to losses many in the band’s audience have experienced in their own lives, and these songs will grow in people’s experience to become anthems that affirm life and the lives of those who have gone before us. That’s how good art and music works in our lives, like a healing balm, once we’ve come face to face with the truth.

“Rescued” / “Under You” / “Show Me How”

Pearl Jam / Queens Of The Stone Age / Audioslave

Medicine At Midnight (2021) / Concrete & Gold (2017) / Saint Cecilia EP (2015) / Sonic Highways (2014)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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