There are artists who survive through perpetual reinvention, constantly surprising their audience at every turn, and then there are artists who trade in reliability. Twenty-six years into their career, Foo Fighters very much belong to the latter category.
Every two or three years a new album comes out, promoted by a tour of the world’s biggest venues, and magazine covers featuring Dave Grohl pulling the face he pulls on magazine covers: brow furrowed, teeth bared. It’s not a comparison you hear very often, but there’s a sense in which they’re the American version of Oasis: a putatively alternative band dealing in a punk-ish take on rock classicism and beloved of people who presumably want to know exactly what they’re getting before they shell out for, or at the very least stream, a new album.
A certain dependability might be the point – Dave Grohl presumably having had enough surprises to last him a lifetime while he was a member of Nirvana – although an itchiness seems to have manifested in recent years. “Complacency and feeling stagnant drives bands into the ground,” he told the Guardian, seven years ago. “It’s a priority that we continue to enjoy it and love it.” So there have been albums recorded in a garage (Wasting Light) or in different cities around America with local guest musicians (Sonic Highways). Concrete and Gold (2017) paired the band with pop kingpin Greg Kurstin, which, if nothing else, meant that the co-author of Adele’s Hello produced a song about Dave Grohl’s teenage love of controversial industrial experimentalists Whitehouse and Death in June.
Grohl had changed the methods by which Foo Fighters recorded albums without actually changing much about the music they contained: whether recorded in a garage, with the guy who produced Sia’s Chandelier or indeed New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the results always sounded almost exactly like Foo Fighters. You thus might consider the pre-release publicity for Medicine at Midnight – another Greg Kurstin co-production, which Grohl has described as a “disco” album influenced by David Bowie’s Let’s Dance – with a jaundiced eye. In fairness, there are a handful of moments when you can just about hear the outline of this plan, most obviously on single Shame Shame, with its looped drums and pizzicato strings. Elsewhere, the title track and Chasing Birds definitely have a Bowie-ish lilt to the vocals, there’s a bit of dancefloor swing about the rhythm of Cloudspotter, and there are points on Holding Poison where the drums slip into a rough approximation of Earl Young’s patent open hi-hat disco beat, at least until the track slips into amiably hard-rocking bar-room boogie.
But these are gentle nods towards an idea, scattered sparingly around an album that otherwise sounds exactly like Foo Fighters. Their musical boundaries are marked at one extreme by No Son of Mine, a retooling of Motörhead’s Ace of Spades riff apparently intended as a tribute to Lemmy, and at the other by the surging pop-rock anthemics of Waiting on a War, a song clearly intended to rouse sports arena-sized audiences into singing along, then punching the air as it accelerates into its coda. Guitars chug as other songs build towards big choruses on which Grohl’s vocal roar sounds celebratory rather than anguished. Before Covid scuppered live music in 2020, Foo Fighters were supposed to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of their eponymous debut album in “world domination” style. You don’t get to do that if your new album is a sudden left-field turn that puzzles your fanbase: a line of thinking that seems to inform Medicine at Midnight, overriding any desire to experiment.
That thinking seems to inform the latterday Foo Fighters more broadly. They’re a band clearly in their element on stage, bringing out special guests, and slipping covers of everything from Prince’s Darling Nikki to Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia into their sets. The albums are all expertly done, but making them seems to have become secondary to touring; the band have smartly instituted enough changes to the process of making albums to stop them feeling as if they’re merely going through the motions, but their contents are there to fill in the gaps between the big hits on stage without suggesting a drastic drop in quality. By those criteria alone, Medicine at Midnight – like its immediate predecessors, a solid but unspectacular album – is a success.