Five Years Ago: Foo Fighters Strip Rock to the Molten Core With ‘Wasting Light’
In September 2010, when Foo Fighters convened in Dave Grohl's garage to begin work on what would become Wasting Light, the frontman knew from the start what he wanted the album to be. It would be something pure, a simple statement that would cut through the static and straight to the pleasure center.
He was two years removed from the band's bloated and meandering Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, and just two months off a world tour with Them Crooked Vultures, his side project with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. The Foos hired producer Butch Vig (who Grohl hadn't worked with since Nirvana recorded Nevermind) to help make an album that turned out to be more consistent than anything Foo Fighters have made in the past decade and louder than anything they'd done.
There were, however, a few plans: The album would be recorded one song each week for 11 weeks, right there in Grohl's garage, and entirely on tape. Husker Du's Bob Mould guested on "Dear Rosemary," though you'd never know it was him, and Grohl's former Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic played bass on "I Should Have Known." Pat Smear was reintroduced as a full-time Foo Fighter, but this (among everything else) was no gimmick: Smear's chunky baritone guitar was crucial in making Wasting Light the heaviest, growliest Foo Fighters album to date.
More than anything, Wasting Light is about redefining Foo Fighters as a pure rock band in the vein of AC/DC or Guns N' Roses. It was a reaction against pretense — like the idea that an album should try to go several different places — and Foo Fighters aimed to convey their most essential qualities. "You go so far [out] to explore new and different things that, after a while, you miss the simplicity of plugging in, turning up to 10 and screaming your balls off," Grohl told Guitar World in 2011.
And though it's not the best album of the band's career, but it is their most furious. Grohl has said it's a record largely about making your way through personal tragedies — breakups, betrayals and the death of friends. But it feels even more like it's about chasing the eternal salvation of rock 'n' roll. For Grohl, rock has been the vehicle that makes moving past tragedy possible and Wasting Light is a monument to his faith in it.
The energy of the album starts with the ticking guitar of "Bridge Burning," a song that is nearly perfect as an amalgam of pop rock: It has Mötörhead chugging, the pop riffage of KISS and the smooth, chrome harmonies of Queens of the Stone Age. The lyrics are good enough to be anthemic and watered down to be about pretty much anything, anchored by a digestible central conceit that loosely matches the musical framework of the chorus. Lyrics like "down crooked stairs and sideways glances / comes the king of second chances" have a snap to them, even if they don't specifically convey much. Even on slower tunes like "I Should Have Known," the engine is on and rumbling under the hood.
"Rope" is even more of a testament to the band's practiced rock, with an off-kilter tempo that lends it a kind of groovy rumble. All three guitarists take their places perfectly: Chris Shiflett plays the jazzy, slightly out-of-key verse chords, Smear's baritone guitar barrels in on the chorus and Grohl steadies the midsection. Later, "Back & Forth" finds Grohl tempering the Lemmy Kilmister kerosene with Ric Ocasek saccharine. Like Ocasek, Grohl has a voice that's both imperfect and authoritative. And if the chorus is less than poetic ("I'm looking for some back and forth with you / Are you feeling the same as I do?"), the chorus is really just a big payoff, a release that comes right on time.
Energy and tension coming to bear come to bear again on "Arlandria," but if the chorus feels like another release, the breakdown at the end of the song is grand finale for the album as a whole. It's one of those moments when Grohl relishes, the harmonies and the guitars and Taylor Hawkins' drums all break free; one of the moments that form the core of the album's intent. It's about embracing sentiment. It happens again on the album's biggest single and closing track, "Walk." Grohl nearly shreds his vocal cords as he screams, "Forever, whatever / I never wanna die." It's the album's climax – the last big release – and Grohl is wailing about immortality.
It's a sentiment, of course, that relates back to the theme of perseverance in the face of tragedy. But, in the end, the key to that perseverance is rock music. And if Grohl has been trying to claim the mantle of rock god since the band’s legacy first started to take shape (you could trace it back to the moment Grohl and Hawkins inducted Queen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, maybe, and right up to his push to include a tribute to Lemmy during this year’s Grammys), then Wasting Light is his way of cementing his status as this era’s King of Rock. The old “I hope I die before I get old” cliché is ultimately the same idea as “I never wanna die." He's seeking immortality within the confines of rock 'n' roll. And if anyone in the realm can lay claim to that, it’s Dave Grohl.