Wasting Light is aging quite well; it’s only been out for just under a year and a half, but it already feels like a classic. Seventeen years after the passing of Kurt Cobain, former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl finally confronts his former band mate’s troubled demise on Wasting Light. Nevermind producer Butch Vig was brought in to produce, and front man Bob Mould of legendary ’80s alternative rock band Hüsker Dü delivers an awesome cameo on track 3, “Dear Rosemary.” Also, none other than Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic — the only other surviving member besides Grohl — plays bass and accordion on track 10, the Cobain lament “I Should Have Known.” Every previous Foo Fighters album has been, in some way, a move away from Grohl’s work in Nirvana, for I suspect the grief of having lost Kurt was still too near. Wasting Light, on the other hand, appears to be Grohl’s first attempt to put things in perspective, both for us and for himself.
Hints of his post-Nirvana grief surfaced on 2007‘s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, most notably on the song “Let It Die,” but it got lost amidst the album’s larger political themes of unrest and frustration during the latter days of George W. Bush’s second term. As a side note, I used to consider ESP&G one of my all-time favorite albums, but it clocked in at #45 — still pretty high, of course — on my favorite albums list recently, and I suspect it will fall farther in subsequent years. I think I figured out why just now while I was writing these last few sentences. ESP&G made sense in a context that now isn’t really all that relevant, since Bush is no longer in office and has basically been in hiding for almost four years now. There were a lot of reasons to be angry, bitter or what have you during those days, but it’s just not worth it to actually summon those feelings anymore.
Anyway, it’s interesting now to look at what direction the Foo Fighters have gone since those days, with Grohl deciding to double back to his time in Nirvana. Not that Wasting Light is anything like a Nirvana album — it’s very distinctly a Foo Fighters record — but this is easily the freshest the Foos have sounded in years. Twenty years after Nevermind brought alternative into the mainstream, Wasting Light sounds anything but stale. In fact, this is really the first sign of actual progress in years, possibly since Grohl recorded the Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut what seems like a million years ago now. The Foos’ 1997 follow-up The Colour and the Shape cemented the band’s sound, which by and large hasn’t changed much over the past fifteen years. The Colour and the Shape was a troubled production, to say the least, with Grohl re-recording drummer William Goldsmith’s drum parts himself, leading Goldsmith to quit.
Former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, who had joined Nirvana for their In Utero tour and had remained with Grohl when he formed the Foo Fighters, quit during The Colour and the Shape tour. (Smear, thankfully, returned to the Foo Fighters prior to the making of Wasting Light.) This hemorrhaging was so severe that it’s a miracle the band has been able to hold together all these years, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Foo Fighters have often sounded workmanlike and labored (“All My Life”), as well as breezily entertaining and relaxed (“Learn to Fly”) in the following years. But one song on 2005‘s In Your Honor, “Friend of a Friend,” really struck a chord with me, since Dave Grohl tenderly opened up about his first impressions of Kurt Cobain.
And then on 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, he flashed forward to his anger toward Courtney Love for introducing Cobain to heroin on “Let It Die.” It’s easy to see now that Grohl has been moving toward a more reflective approach than the Foos’ typically outward-feeling rockers. Numerous references to death and Cobain’s death, specifically, are littered throughout Wasting Light, like on the bridge of the opener “Bridge Burning” — “Gathering the ashes, everything thrown away / Gathering the ashes, scatter as they blow away.” “These Days” (“One of these days your heart will stop and play its final beat / One of these days the clocks will stop and time won’t mean a thing”) and “A Matter of Time” (“You’re one to talk, the heart is a clock / Just like a bomb, it keeps on ticking away / Counting down to detonate”) both offer none-too-subtle nods of Grohl’s pondering of the end approaching, or, in Cobain’s case, having already arrived.
And then there’s the trifecta that closes Wasting Light: “Miss the Misery,” “I Should Have Known” and “Walk.” “Miss the Misery” is the most life-affirming of the three (“Don’t change your mind / You’re wasting light / Get in and let’s go”), while “I Should Have Known” is easily the single darkest song the Foo Fighters have ever recorded. The somewhat ham-fisted “Walk” is the album’s only weak track — its “I never wanna die!” conclusion borders on schmaltz and registers as the album’s lone false note. It highlights the difference between Cobain and Grohl: Cobain would have had the courage to end the album on a down note — he ended Nirvana on “All Apologies,” after all — whereas Grohl overcompensates by tacking on a song to give Wasting Light the happy ending he no doubt wishes his old band had gotten.