Another very quiet week and another older band coming through with the week’s most popular album. Seattle hard rock legends Foo Fighters have been drawing widely mixed receptions in the latter part of their career as they begin incorporating aspects of other genres into their work, and their landmark tenth studio album is no different. Featuring Greg Kurstin, known primarily for his award-winning work with powerhouse pop stars like Adele, Sia and Kelly Clarkson, behind the boards, these nine new tracks range everywhere from the band’s classic grungy garage-rock sound to commercialized dad-rock, Beatles-esque acoustic balladry, spacey and psychedelic alt-rock and even funk-infused danceable numbers. While the ambitious genre-hopping might have been a truly admirable move on an album so short, the unfortunate truth is that the Foos are only particularly good – or rather, cemented themselves as absolutely godlike figures – pertaining to a couple of them. There are still quite a few highlights here for longtime fans of the band, but the lyrical output and the application of frontman Dave Grohl’s natural atomic bomb of a voice to other styles are highly inconsistent at best.
Dave Grohl has stated that the album’s more brightly-coloured direction was primarily inspired by the band’s “love of rock bands that make these upbeat, up-tempo, almost danceable records.” This influence is the most overtly displayed on the album’s opener, “Making A Fire.” Veering far too close into Imagine Dragons-style modern arena pop rock and squandering the band’s greatest strengths, the track opens with a saccharine chant of “na-na’s” juxtaposed awkwardly with a crunchy guitar riff. Grohl himself is bringing as much over-the-top rock frontman energy as usual, but placed in this context instead of the typical chaotic soundscape, his belted, gritty wails sound almost comical, as if the band were aiming to parodize themselves. The track also signals the many overused lyrical cliches that will be popping up on almost every track here, Grohl seemingly typing words into an online rhyming dictionary and filling out the rest with ready-made phrases that sound somewhat edgy or cool. Three of the album’s weakest tracks, curiously enough, all come in its opening run. The single “Shame Shame” drew a gauntlet of confused online reactions upon its release for good reason – the track is built around an engaging enough complex drum pattern, but the track somehow feels extremely slow, Grohl’s central refrain as he repeats the word “shame” in a descending and almost off-key sounding melody sucking the energy out of the room in what feels like the antithesis of the Foo Fighters spirit. The spacey arrangement and off-kilter vibe of the track feels like a legendary band trying needlessly to hop on the sound of another, the entire song giving off a decidedly Queens of the Stone Age feel. The drum machines and groove-oriented angle that open “Cloudspotter” actually don’t come off as bad as you’d expect, until the band juxtaposes the suave low-key style with the most overly energetic and gritty chorus here in a sudden, highly questionable leap of energy.
Luckily, things certainly pick up from there. The track “Waiting on A War” is one of the only times on the album where we get some truly affecting lyrical moments from the band, Grohl stating that it was inspired by his 11-year-old daughter nervously asking him if the today’s fraught political climate would lead to a war and being reminded of his own adolescent fears throughout the Cold War tensions of the 1980s. Through a passionate lead vocal set to steadily strummed bright acoustic pattern, Grohl ponders whether there is more to living life than preparing for the next cataclysmic event to strike and criticizes the society that instills these fears. As Grohl repeatedly states his question, altering the lyrics each time to appear more and more hopeful that there is a deeper meaning to be found, the instrumental begins to fill out around him with strings and percussion. The track suddenly reaches a fever pitch near its conclusion, increasing rapidly in tempo for a delightfully heavy and headbanging finale placing a stamp on his message. This leads into the title track, “Medicine at Midnight,” which is easily the most successful new experiment for the band here. Driven by a central guitar riff that functions almost like a funk bassline, Grohl’s vocals follow the guitar hook’s tune, toning down his usual theatrics and delivering a near-whispered vocal that sounds like he’s harbouring a deadly secret, something that only becomes all the more effective with the anguished, yearning counterparts in the chorus and the excellent guitar solo. Falling back to a repeated, hushed chant of a group vocal by the end completes the greatest arrangement here. I’m going to need to hear this one in the soundtrack to a spy movie.
The back-to-back tracks “No Son Of Mine” and “Holding Poison” harken back the most to the Foo Fighters’ classic grungy sound, delivering some hard-rock thrills to their core audience and continuing the redemptive streak the album has to offer after its opening run. The opening riffs to “No Son Of Mine” legitimately bring to mind the crunchy insanity of a band like Motorhead, before Grohl begins his sarcastic salvo against the hypocritical tendencies of the evangelical right from the perspective of a disapproving father. The track isn’t as instantly catchy or poignant as others here, but it’s the most all-out and punishing heavy rock track on the album and reminds us what they’re capable of in a big way. “Holding Poison” is about as close as you’ll get to some of the big singles that have stood the test of time from the band, a driving rock song with some soaring notes from Grohl that dives headfirst into a catchy chorus featuring a memorable lyrical motif and some impassioned, screamed vocals. The unorthodox transition into another great guitar solo adds a degree of creativity in the midst of the band doing what they do best.
Unsatisfied leaving the listener without a final, completely baffling note, the penultimate track “Chasing Birds” essentially sounds like the aftermath of Dave Grohl locking himself in a room and listening to every psychedelic, lyrically scatterbrained Beatles track in existence in succession. Of course, the style worked in a timeless fashion for the Beatles. But the Foo Fighters attempting a languid, acoustic dreamscape of a song is almost pinpointing the extreme at the other side of the musical spectrum. Grohl’s dreamy vocals sound downright ridiculous, especially as he breezes through the most laughable list of lyrical cliches on the album. There’s barely a lyric here that you wouldn’t be able to find on some kind of proverb or inspirational quote, and the meaning, if any, is completely lost in the shuffle. The dazed attitude of the track feels highly inauthentic, but the closer regains some sense of sanity. Another track drawing from stadium-sized classic rock with a self-assured and endlessly cool vocal delivery to the hook, “Love Dies Young” is a defiant and high-octane closer striving to hold onto love.
Despite a couple glaring misfires scattered throughout the brief tracklist, the highs of Medicine at Midnight are just enough to make you forget about them. The veteran band continues to roll along more or less with a business-as-usual attitude, but when they tap in to the kind of material that cemented them forever in rock history, it’s tough to deny the band’s supremacy.
Favourite Tracks: Medicine at Midnight, Waiting On A War, Love Dies Young, Holding Poison
Least Favourite Track: Chasing Birds