Named after the patroness saint of great musicians and recorded in a hotel bearing the same name, the Foo Fighters’ new EP Saint Cecilia is mainly a token of gratitude to fans after a long and particularly difficult tour (Dave broke his leg in the middle of it) and a gesture of solidarity to the people of Paris. But hey before we talk about that, let’s play a game: guess when Saint Cecilia’s feast day is in the Catholic calendar. Just take a stab. November 22nd, right – the day before this EP was released upon us…
In addition to its being a seemingly random appeal to the aforementioned saint, it’s also the latest installment in Dave’s hobby of toying with the religious fabric of his immediate context (mainstream U.S. culture). Although he’s not really making any sort of religious statement, other than perhaps claiming music as his own personal creed, Dave is experienced at working in dialogue with elements of American religion. In the odyssey of a letter that Dave attached to the release of Saint Cecilia, he describes the band’s excursions across the United States for Sonic Highways and the ensuing tour as his “rag tag crew of ne’er-do-wells . . . stumbling from city to city, coast to coast, taking in every drop (!) of 100 proof American culture we could squeeze.” Among the resulting concentrate is some sort of microwaved appreciation for American religion, here mostly meaning Christianity. This shows up on Sonic Highways most prominently in “Congregation,” where Dave pays homage to the setting that gave scores of famous American musicians their start: worship bands and Gospel choirs. On this EP, Dave lightly invokes Christ on “Savior Breath” with references to “crucify,” “torture,” “savior,” “sin,” “debt” and so forth, though to what end these references are made is less clear. Maybe it’s just edgy and transgressive to play with religious imagery (hey, Hozier) or maybe it’s just fertile soil for all kinds of creative cultural production and art, a la William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
“Savior Breath” is by far their most aggressive track on the EP and their most furious material since Wasting Light’s blood-curdling “White Limo,” but it harkens back to material as old as their 1995 debut. But if it’s an echo of post-grunge cuts like “Weenie Beenie,” then it is also a torchbearer of the polish and showmanship of their later stadium days, what with solos devolving into wild screams as Dave presumably careens wildly about the stage in the same manner that led to his broken leg this past June. The rest of the tunes are harder to date, save for “The Neverending Sigh,” which is over 20 years old according to Dave’s letter. Overall, the Foos’ style seems to have reached its natural resonance, meaning that when they get together in a room and play music a large number of times, there is approximately 99% certainty that the resulting music will sound something like Saint Cecilia, which doesn’t sound very different from Sonic Highways and so on.
That being said, the EP is largely a middle-of-the-road hard rock piece, complete with virtuosic solos, growlingly masculine vocals, and some tenderness and/or thoughtfulness sprinkled throughout, as Dave is wont to do. “Sean” is a humorous piece that moves at the Foos’ regular pace, most likely composed with the band’s blundering and unpleasantly weird guitar tech Sean Cox in mind, who is also a near carbon-copy of Rick Rubin. The half-formed ballad “Iron Rooster” finds Dave reflecting on the classic disparity between will and ability, finding a common piece of garden décor to be the appropriate metaphor for such a reflection. Spot on, Dave, really nailed that one. The EP closes with more tricks from Dave: “The Neverending Sigh” is really not a sigh at all, but rather more of a defiant stiff-arm to the world both stylistically and lyrically. On it we find Dave yowling about emotional space, observing profoundly that “no one let’s everyone in.”
But it’s not worth analyzing Saint Cecilia too critically – as mentioned above, all it’s meant to be is a simple token for fans’ gratitude: “To each and every one of you that made the past few years the best our band has ever had, thank you.” And if you’ve ever seen Dave play live, then you know he’s at least sincere. At the Foos’ Wrigley Field show this August, the rugged front man was brought to tears onstage. He poured forth his love for both Chicago and Evanston, the former being the location of his first live show (Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear in 1983) and the latter of which is home to a close cousin, whose basement provided his first opportunity to experiment with instruments. He brought both his mom (it was her birthday) and the aforementioned cousin onstage and simultaneously celebrated both of them and the place that Chicago holds in his heart. And so it was with Sonic Highways – Dave pays homage to the music that he loves through his own work. Who can fault a dude so genuinely attempting to appreciate the good things that he experiences in the world, and who also attempts to address some of the mess that co-exists with those good things? This is Dave in a nutshell: music provides him a fairly endless joy; he wishes to share that joy with you, even and especially in places of deep hurt, like Paris.
The Foo Fighters remain culturally relevant (if you disagree, note that HBO was willing to be their platform for the eight documentaries accompanying Sonic Highways), not only in the United States, but also in Europe. After all, they’re reaching out to Paris, speaking as if they have an audience there because they do in fact possess such an audience. That’s not even mentioning our friends across the pond who adore Dave – British Rolling Stone equivalent NME practically worships him (see “50 Incredibly Geeky Facts About Dave Grohl” or any of the other hundred articles they’ve written on him). And where was the band when Dave broke his leg this past June? Why, Sweden of course.
Despite this global cultural capital, self-awareness – virtue rare enough – just so happens to be one of the band’s strong suits. They’ve realized that their sound has stagnated and that their most recent endeavor, Sonic Highways, was not as grand in reception as it was in conception. So they’re hanging it up for a while; Grohl announced in unison with the release of Saint Cecilia that the band is going on hiatus. The announcement is a self-diagnosis, couched in language of stagnancy and a need to break from the routine of touring and writing to recharge their creative machinery: “We could use a nice wander through the woods right about now.” They have caught themselves before burning out entirely. Well, depending on your perspective, that may have happened as early as the turn of the millennium. But in any case, their hiatus is a relief. Go drum for a while, Dave; we love you on the kit. And thank you, Saint Cecilia, for preventing them from further slipping into the doldrums of half-hearted and formulaic hard rock.
Here’s Dave’s letter in full and here’s the EP:
Title: Saint Cecilia
Artist: Foo Fighters
Release Date: November 23, 2015
Genre: Alternative Rock, Hard Rock, Post-grunge