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“Tracking Dave Grohl’s Love for the Stars as an Ulterior Realm in the Foo Fighters Songwriting Universe”

Just reading the “Critical Reception” section in the Wikipedia article on the Foo Fighters’ third album There is Nothing Left to Lose, you get the sense that this will always be a pretty misunderstood band. Well, maybe part of that is the result of their own subterfuge, things like slotting “Big Me” as the gigantic mega-single on their otherwise eardrum-bleeding-inducing self-titled debut, and pounding out straight-ahead singles for sophomore effort The Colour and the Shape when the best song on that album, “My Poor Brain,” is an ensnaring tutorial in unorthodox phrasing and surreal texture.

On a sort of unrelated note, There is Nothing Left to Lose can be if not misleading, pretty stylistically multiple, and almost paradoxical, as a whole. If you were trying to pare down just what kind of album it is, that is, you’d almost certainly look to the huge, awesome hit single “Learn to Fly,” and deduce that it’s a turn toward catchy pop and even dad-rock, maybe. Well, wait a minute, because the first song is this loud, screeching and twisted bout of homicidal mania directed at the fake Hollywood persona of materialism and vacant good looks — “Stacked Actors.” “Breakout,” then, is kind of a throwaway punk tune, like a song that would be in Hole’s catalogue.

By the time “Learn to Fly” comes around, with its catchy gallantry and sublime perspective, the ride has been disorienting, but fun. What’s more, you pretty much know that you’re in for some high-flying madness on the rest of the album, just from how tense, stark and distinct the first three tracks have been.

“Gimme Stitches” and “Generator,” then, humbly carry the baton from side to side. Things really get going, then, with “Aurora,” which begins with a guitar part transmitted serenely and almost lazily through an echo chamber, to create an otherworldly effect appropriate for handling something heavenly, the Aurora Borealis. Right away in the introduction to “Aurora,” it positions itself as something thematically apart from the rest of the album. In this way, the celestial mid-section of There is Nothing Left to Lose stands as a discernible, autonomous phase within a rock LP, something perhaps not accomplished since the acoustic, otherworldly side B of Led Zeppelin III, or maybe the hazy second slate of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. The stab at the celestial provided by their prior album The Colour and the Shape gives us a hint of what was to come, in a similar slow, brooding disposition, but certainly fails to generate this level of meaning. The astronomical trifecta of TINLTL songs, if anything, is presaged with more vitality within the same album, on “Learn to Fly,” which suggests a fixation on astronomy and far-off, shining and immeasurable beacons.

While “Live-in Skin” doesn’t deal specifically with astronomy, there is a fantastical feel to the lyrics, which, at least, are decidedly un-romantic and shirking of all typical themes and strategies, in such a realm. Like a mantra, and with authority, Grohl insists over and over that “I’m a mountain”; a statement which, at least in terms of songwriting, is beginning to gather more and more clout as we pummel through this middle phase of this album. “Next Year,” then, probably my favorite song in this section and on the whole album as well, plays as a beautiful conclusion to the excursion into the sky and also, maybe, as a deliberately delusional goal explicated with the line “I’ll be coming home next year”; like a tongue-in-cheek references to the things we know we should do but really won’t. (It’s not like a famous rock star like Dave Grohl would have lacked the means to “come home” right away, that is.) It’s like a distant star in the sky — it’s so real, it’s something you can feel but he’s so disarmed by the concept of trying to embrace it that he can only take that pain and transcribe it into this trippy psychedelic rock that sometimes seems to have its own gravitational pull. 

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