Dave Grohl has described the ninth album from his band Foo Fighters as “Motörhead’s version of Sergeant Pepper”. You have to applaud his ambition, while also wondering how compatible those musical elements really are.
“Sergeant Pepper” is pop shorthand for colour, melody, harmony, invention and sheer scope, not qualities one would immediately associate with the blunt rock of Motörhead or, indeed, heavy metal as a genre. But there is a more literal interpretation, since Grohl has actually recruited Sergeant Pepper himself.
Paul McCartney contributes light, unfussy drums to Sunday Rain (a brave gesture given that Foo Fighters already have two fantastic drummers in Grohl and co-vocalist Taylor Hawkins). The snaking guitar line and descending chord progression are straight out of the schools of John Lennon and George Harrison, making for a fine, moody pop rock groove. One suspects the song itself, though, would have been rejected by McCartney from the Sergeant Pepper sessions for sounding far too much like the Beatles.
Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, has done a remarkable job with Foo Fighters, taking them slowly (over the course of 23 years) to the level of global stadium superstars despite not having a major critical or commercial success (their bestseller remains 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, which sold some two million copies). He has an aptitude for fierce riffing rock and singalong choruses, although they tend to be made up of borrowed elements rather than driven by raw emotional fuel.
For this record, Grohl has drafted in producer Greg Kurstin from the commercial pop world, where he has worked with Adele, Sia and Lily Allen. Between them, they have added huge layers of densely compressed vocal harmonies and filled any spaces with cascading counter-melodies, vastly expanding the dynamic range on songs that switch in a flash from acoustic ditty to epic rock. The results freshen up Foo Fighters’ sound without actually modernising it, the density of the mixes evoking the messy excesses of the Seventies rather than the cut and thrust of contemporary pop.
Production cannot disguise the fact that the core of the Foo Fighters remains overly familiar. Grohl sings and roars as if he is putting every fibre of his being on the line but can’t escape the genre’s trite rhymes and banal clichés. There is only so much meaning you can squeeze from lyrics like “hop on the train to nowhere, baby, don’t you wanna take a ride?” Concrete and Gold is an ambitious and entertaining album. But when it comes to a comparison with Sergeant Pepper, it doesn’t earn its stripes.