Expectations can be a tricky thing. They can weigh down very good albums... and their absence can make above-average albums sound a lot better. New releases by iconic names are held to a much higher standard of account than a random chance discovery of a record by an artist we haven't heard before.
I'm grappling with this a little bit, because - for better or worse - I had a ton of expectations riding on the Foo Fighters' new album Wasting Light. Hard not to, after hearing the lead single Rope, the quasi-single White Limo and the 30-second teaser of Bridge Burning. Combine that with a ton of nostalgia (the self-titled debut was one of the first albums I ever got, and still a huge favourite), and you can hopefully understand how I really hoped the Foos would produce a sensational record.
Don't get me wrong here - I'm not saying that Wasting Light is not a good album. In fact, it is a very good album, with a number of fantastically good tracks. It just falls ever so slightly short of perfection though, for exactly the same reason that every Foo Fighters album post-Colour and the Shape has been an under-performer. Front-loading.
Let's recap. The self-titled debut and The Colour and the Shape are both consistent, balanced, excellent albums. There is Nothing Left to Lose starts with the utterly brilliant Stacked Actors and, aside from Generator and Aurora, never even gets close to those heights subsequently - and then a pretty similar pattern is repeated on the next three albums (substitute All My Life, Best of You, and The Pretender accordingly). There are some amazing songs on all of those later albums, but they're not great albums.
To be fair, the front-loading is a lot less noticeable here than on some of those examples. There are some very good songs on both halves of the album. It's just that on the back half, there's just a teeny-weeny bit of filler that becomes that much more noticeable given how unbelievably awesome the first half is.
And oh how awesome the first half is. It really is. The first two tracks are both incendiary, brilliantly-constructed rock songs. Opener Bridge Burning kicks in with a huge crescendo, dive-bombing riff and Dave Grohl screaming "These are my famous last words" before locking into a tight up-tempo groove a-la Monkey Wrench. Some great use of dynamics and just the right amount of use of the main riff/refrain/call to headbang keep the song incredibly interesting throughout.
Lead single Rope is equally brilliant, albeit for different reasons. Aside from being damn catchy, the use of clever musical counterpoints here is really, really nice. The opening guitar line - and most of the verse - has a slightly melancholy tone to it but then every fourth bar there's a great little twist that adds a real sense of urgency - either a punchy double-time drum/guitar-combination fill, or a slight delay followed by a big power-chord just to keep the headbangers interested. And then on a more macro scale, most of the song has a fairly constructed, radio-friendly vibe to it, but then there is a big rock freak-out mid-song which is a great contrast. If ever one single song has showcased all the many unique, enjoyable facets of the Foo Fighters - this is probably it.
Dear Rosemary changes things up nicely, more of a bluesy, broody mid-tempo number with a bit of help from Bob Mould and some nice stereo guitar interplay. Actually the three-guitar attack (thanks to the return of Pat Smear) is a highlight throughout - there's some really nice guitar layering and detail on a number of the songs.
And then White Limo. Hands up who remembers those great early Foos songs like Wattershed, Weenie Beenie, and The Colour and the Shape (which ironically doesn't appear on the album of the same name)? Well, White Limo is a return to the tradition of 'let's make a really fast, thrashy, rocking song with distorted, nonsensical vocals, which is completely awesome'. All I can say here is that if I was to make a list of my top 10 songs of all time, White Limo would almost certainly be on it. I do my best to headbang along in awe, and sing the only bit I can actually decipher "Go....... limo". Go, you good limo thing.
So how to follow that up? Well with a completely contrasting but almost as excellent track, Arlandria. This one, you can sing along to the whole way, and in fact you'll probably want to (the fact you can actually decipher the words makes it considerably easier, too). Insidiously catchy, with some great dynamic shifts.
And here's where the quality drops ever so slightly. These Days, Back & Forth and A Matter of Time are all decent, catchy tracks, but in contrast to their predecessors which see the band really pushing themselves, they sound just a little bit Foos-by-numbers. You might swear you've heard them before.
But then the closing trio really raise the bar again - Miss the Misery is a great song built around a fantastic main riff, and it's followed by the plaintive, slow-building I Should Have Known. Closing track Walk is ever so slightly reminiscent of New Way Home - albeit with the quiet-loud, slow-fast buildup replaced by some nice guitar interplay and Dave Grohl screaming "I never wanna die!".
Wasting Light is a really good album and one I'm sure will get a lot of repeat listens. If its third quarter was just a little more interesting, it would be a truly exceptional, career-defining album.
But you know, maybe I should just stop prattling on about that, crank it up loud, and enjoy it. Sure does seem like that's how the band intended it.