When we last left our heroes at the end of 2015, Foo Fighters had just put out a free EP called Saint Cecilia in the wake of the Paris attacks with the hope that, as Dave Grohl wrote in an accompanying note, “these songs can bring a little light into this sometimes dark world.” This was after they’d spent the year touring behind their then-new LP, Sonic Highways, a tour that those attacks cut short.

In early 2016, they went on an indefinite hiatus. Or so it seemed; although Grohl had planned to stay away from music for a whole year, he could only manage six months (“to the day,” says Grohl). The band’s sabbatical-breaking new album, Concrete and Gold, is their ninth record and an improvement over the disappointing Sonic.

Perhaps credit is due to Cecilia’s back-to-basics approach. While only a footnote in the Foo canon, the EP notably discarded the gimmickry of their last two records: for Sonic, the band wrote and recorded each song in a different city, and Wasting Light was recorded in Grohl’s garage on analog equipment. This time around, the band returns to what they do best: writing broad, mass-appeal arena rock. Concrete’s lead single “Run” could easily fit on the EP, with its quiet-to-loud immediacy à la “The Pretender” and anthemic chorus.

It’s also a bit of a red herring. Little else on Concrete fits within the self-imposed rigidity that has allowed Foo Fighters to dominate mainstream rock radio for two decades. But that isn’t to say this is an experimental record, or one that would render the band unrecognizable, either. For their new album the Foos teamed up with pop (super)producer and songwriter Greg Kurstin, best known as the co-writer and producer of Adele’s mega-hit “Hello.” The result feels more melodic than any Foos release since There is Nothing Left to Lose.

Concrete doesn’t quite fulfill Grohl’s description of blending “Seventies AM gold radio and […] Motörhead,” but it’s not a bad start. For much of the record, their three guitar attack of Grohl, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear remains intact, as does the rumbling rhythm section of bassist Nick Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins. And yet, the (slight) shift in songwriting and arrangement is clear from the outset. Rather than simply pound listeners over the head with straightforward radio rock (though, some of that is here – this is Foo Fighters, after all), the band cautiously filters stadium-fillers through bluesy boogie (“Make It Right”), jangle pop (the first half of “Dirty Water”) and sun-kissed folk-rock (“Happy Ever After [Zero Hour]”). They even attempt a slinky, late-period Beatles number (“Sunday Rain”), featuring Paul McCartney on drums and Hawkins on lead vocals.

Unfortunately, you need the liner notes to fully appreciate the guests and added instrumentation. Darrel Thorp’s mix buries anyone and anything that isn’t the core group (minus keyboardist Rami Jaffee, who is also often difficult to spot). Even with a decent pair of headphones, it takes serious concentration to pick out piano, synths, sax or guest vocals when these elements–supposedly added to enhance their respective compositions–are pushed to the outer corners of a given song. It makes little sense to invite, say, Justin Timberlake and Shawn Stockman to sing if they’re just going to be obscured in a multi-track mix. To have such talent reduced to an Easter egg hunt is an unfortunate waste.

Still, kudos to Foo Fighters for trying something different without the process itself being newsworthy. The variations here on what a Foo record should be are subtle – warm backing vocals, minor genre experiments, inoffensively vague politicking – but welcome nonetheless. Concrete and Gold, like Sonic Highways, plays it a bit too safe to hit the band’s highest water marks, but for many who just want a mainstream rock record to escape reality with, it’ll do just fine. “I don’t wanna be king/ I just wanna sing a love song,” sings Grohl at the album’s outset. “Pretend there’s nothing wrong/ You can sing along with me.” At this point, Foo Fighters have settled into their role as comfort food–and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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