Foo Fighters: But Here We Are review – a raw, unapologetic act of mourning

In 1995, Foo Fighters released their eponymous debut album, recorded by Dave Grohl alone the previous year in the months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The contemporary press was revealing: the album was not greeted with the universal warmth one might have expected. Interviewers and critics seemed to be suspicious and combative. There was a consensus that the album was selling well due to residual affection for Nirvana, or as a kind of mass sympathy vote; that either way, it was unlikely to be a project with legs. One frequent line of questioning involved picking over its lyrics for references to his former band and its late frontman, despite Grohl’s repeated insistence that almost all the songs predated Cobain’s death and that the album was not an act of posthumous reflection or mourning – whatever grieving he had to do was done in private.

How times change. Twenty-eight years later, Foo Fighters are enshrined as a dependable rock institution. Dave Grohl’s charm and affability mean his name seldom appears in print unaccompanied by the phrase Nicest Guy in Rock; his image long uncoupled itself from the darkness and angst that consumed Nirvana. And the death in 2022 of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins was marked with very public grieving: tribute concerts in LA and London – billed by Grohl as “gigantic fucking nights for a gigantic fucking person” – their bills featuring everyone from Rush to Liam Gallagher to Miley Cyrus, their conclusion emotionally charged performances by Foo Fighters themselves, Grohl fighting back tears as he sang.

Meanwhile, on Foo Fighters’ first album since Hawkins’ death – with Grohl filling in on drums – Joshua Freese has been announced as Hawkins’ live replacement. It makes no bones about being a musical act of mourning, opening with Grohl reeling from hearing of his best friend’s passing – “It came in a flash / It came out of nowhere / It happened so fast” – and ending with him singing: “Rest – you will be safe now.” Every song in between is about death, alternately poleaxed by grief, temporarily overwhelmed by memories or resolving to carry on: Nothing at All, which opens with the words “I’ve been meaning to tell you”, sounds like Grohl’s roaring justification for Foo Fighters’ continuing existence.

The cover features a dedication to both Hawkins and Grohl’s late mother, Virginia, whose deaths the lyrics occasionally seem to conflate: “Everything we love must grow old,” sings Grohl on Beyond Me, before the thought of his bandmate and best friend brings him up short, and he adds, “or so I’m told”. The Teacher, meanwhile, is a lengthy, episodic song named after his mum’s profession, which fixates on the way a parent’s passing can make you consider your own proximity to mortality – “One step closer to the other side / I can feel what others do / I can’t stop this if I wanted to” – before ending with an anguished, repeated yell of “goodbye” that’s eventually consumed by headphone-scourging noise.

If the lyrics are largely turned inward, lost in contemplation or adrift on reminiscence, the music hardly ever follows suit. Rest has a lullaby-like quality, but for the most part, the album sticks to Foo Fighters’ wall-of-guitars blueprint, as pretty much every album to date has done, albeit with some minor tweaks: a distinctly gothy-sounding echo threads through the opening of Hearing Voices, while the hazy melody of Show Me How could pass for My Bloody Valentine. There are moments that sound not broken, but triumphant and weirdly euphoric, at odds with the tone of the words, as when Rescued gallops to its conclusion or Beyond Me surges into swaying anthem territory.

That it works rather than feeling odd or jarring may be down to the fact that But Here We Are does what Foo Fighters do noticeably better than immediate predecessors. Their recent albums have been marked by a creeping sense of obligation, of a band making records that would fill the gaps between the old hits tolerably enough, enabling them to continue touring without fully embracing the heritage rock label. This time, however, the tunes are noticeably more polished, the dynamic shifts punchier: it’s as if the desire to express something about Hawkins, or to make an album that stands as a worthy memorial has given them a fresh sense of purpose and momentum.

Related: Swagger, power and all-star cameos: Foo Fighters roar back with new drummer

In the charged Under You or The Glass, which sets the bereaved’s howl of unfairness – “I had a person I love / And just like that I was left to live without him” – to an almost implausible preponderance of hooks, they may even have songs that join I’ll Stick Around and Best of You in the pantheon of greatest hits. It’s crowd-pleasing stuff, but that somehow feels a more fitting memorial than a challenging dark night of the soul. After all, bounding out from behind his kit to sing the Faces’ Stay With Me or Queen’s Somebody to Love, Taylor Hawkins was something of a crowd-pleaser himself.

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