album review

The Foo Fighters Reach for the Light

On their 11th album, the band looks to heal itself after losing Taylor Hawkins and Grohl’s mother, Virginia. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Dave Grohl presents himself as a rock historian and evangelist, but his real project is perseverance. On a certain level, his career has been defined by what he’s been able to build while everything around him was shattering. His time as one of rock’s loudest drummers exploded when he asked Melvins front man Buzz Osborne for Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic’s phone numbers after the breakup of Scream, the venerable D.C. punk outfit where Grohl earned his earliest stripes. A few impactful years later, with the surviving members of Nirvana reeling from Cobain’s sudden death, Grohl began to write the songs that would earn him a reputation as a torchbearer for stadium rock. Like a sculptor working with sea glass, he assembled a group of seasoned players, key pieces of other bands that had split. They stuck around because chops don’t go out of style. (Scan the credits of even the most feathery pop album and you might find a rock vet somewhere. Greg Kurstin, Medicine’s producer, has worked with Adele and Miley Cyrus.) And neither do songs about valiance in the face of the deepest darkness, like “The Best of You,” “Times Like These,” and “My Hero.”

But 2022 put the resilient spirit of the Foo Fighters to the test as the deaths of drummer Taylor Hawkins and Grohl’s mother and collaborator, Virginia, cast a pall over what was shaping up to be a peaceful time. There had been a sprawling celebration of the band’s journey via Grohl’s 2021 memoir, The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music; Medicine at Midnight, the Foo Fighters’ tenth album, a smart pivot toward capturing the carefree neoclassic rock energy of their shows; and the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were loosening up their reign as princes of the ’90s alt-rock boom and scion of the ’70s explosion of punk, pop, rock, and metal, a network of interests that informed the unpredictable slate of releases of the last few years, including an EP of surprisingly faithful Bee Gees covers, a supernatural horror flick about diabolical occurrences in a band’s recording sessions, and a mini-album of doom- and thrash-metal tunes from the universe of the film. They were mellowing out after the musicology exercise of 2014’s Sonic Highways, a documentary and album examining the art and culture of eight American cities, and the meditations on political strife in 2017’s Concrete and Gold. But the ’20s don’t care about plans and trajectories, so even this band, a monument to the exhilarating force of a rock riff, must grapple with the jolt of separation from the lives they mapped out for themselves.

With But Here We Are, their 11th album, the Foo Fighters progress the only way they can, laying it all out on the record, tussling with the darkness the way vibrant choruses work to undo the knots tied in turbulent verses. Grohl plays the drums on all ten tracks, and the return of his powerful, propulsive feel snaps us back to the late-’90s short-hair era, when sweat and precision yielded gems like “Everlong.” It’s a jarring twist, a treat we couldn’t have planned for. The tightness of these grooves draws a notable contrast to the architecture of Medicine at Midnight, a collection of set pieces for inspired, swinging drumming. You feel the absence of Hawkins as much in that shift as you do in the lyrics. While the last album branched out into funk, metal, and folk, But Here We Are is more of a distillation of the original idea: self-effacing, encouraging rock songs showcasing brute-force drum performances. But this time, a band that serenades the masses through their feelings is soothing and healing itself. But Here We Are documents the struggle to soldier on while missing people, to reckon with mortality and unexpected endings. It’s a shared grieving experience and a question of how to find secure footing when it feels like our support system is crumbling.

Aching directness and wounded sweetness make a potent combination here. Opener “Rescued” — an early set-list staple in the series of live shows introducing new touring drummer Josh Freese, formerly of the Vandals, A Perfect Circle, and Nine Inch Nails — is pitch-perfect Dave, a song about confronting your fears that’s also trying to supercharge the audience with a power-pop EMP. “Show Me How” shimmers as gorgeous guitars adorn Grohl and his daughter Violet’s pining for someone they can never see again; “Under You” is a quick reflection on how that yearning never goes away. “Beyond Me” builds to a gutting bridge and chorus aiming for an inversion of all the peace and promise of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers”: “Everything we love must grow old, or so I’m told / You must release what you hold dear, or so I fear / But it’s beyond me, forever young and free.” But Here We Are pulses with the sense that the future happened too quickly, and we’re all having to navigate situations and handle emotions we thought we’d get to much later in life. These songs chart the push through denial into the acceptance of the reality of death and the lifetime journey of bereavement. “Hearing Voices” and “The Glass” both itch as familiar sights and sounds offer reminders of lost loved ones. The title track circles the void: “I gave you my heart / But here we are.”

The pressure produces gems. But Here We Are is easily one of the most fiercely focused works in the Foo Fighters catalogue. The finest songs here would be highlights on any other album. The scrappy post-grunge of the 1995 debut, the confident refinement of The Colour and the Shape, the pop melodies of There Is Nothing Left to Lose, and the lean ferocity of Wasting Light surface throughout the new record. The ten-minute epic “The Teacher” barrels through big riffs and plush breakdowns as it memorializes the bond between a son and his mother, who receives a powerful send-off in a chorus of soaring good-byes as the song’s coda is bit-crushed into ash. By the end, But Here We Are offers the best consolation it can. The closing lullaby “Rest” supposes that while a death is the beginning of a world of hurt for the living, it’s an end to sickness and pain for the departed. The larger message is that we all carry a perfect world in our heads that every sharp and terrible shock in our corporeal reality erodes, so it’s best that we make use of the time we get with the people we care about. Because when they’re gone, “Under You” notes, there’s no getting over it.

The Foo Fighters Reach for the Light