So what we got here is a “sexy” Foo Fighters album, and it’s up to you to determine who those scare quotes oughta scare, exactly. Medicine at Midnight, the grizzled-veteran rock band’s 10th album in an illustriously humble 26-year career, has just a hint of slinkiness, of dance-groove friskiness, of vague atmospheric lasciviousness. But even the slightest deviation from workmanlike, everything-but-rap-and-country guitar heroism has always sounded positively cataclysmic coming from the indomitable Dave Grohl and his various pals. “If / You / Want / To / I’ll be the one, be the tongue that will swallow you,” he offers in an oddly satisfying sort of half-growl, half-croon as backup singers chant “Shame / Shame / Shame / Shame” and the usual roaring guitars file themselves down to a terse point. Huh. The song is called “Shame Shame”; in the video, Grohl cavorts with a dancer-model in an eerie goth-ballet tableau. The part where he starts digging a grave (one presumes) with his guitar certainly feels, uh, symbolic, but of what, exactly?
The Foo Fighters—now a six-man operation, though the spare and righteously svelte Medicine at Midnight rarely sounds like it—have exuded palpable Last Rock Band Standing energy for at least half of their quarter-century career, as steely rockers turned dad rockers turned grandad rockers (guitarist Pat Smear is 61!) raging against the dying of the arena lights. Each and every time rock ’n’ roll dies—as a genre, if not a lifestyle—it somehow only makes them stronger. Grohl started the Foos as a one-man show mere months after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, and that very first, self-titled record in ’95 is unsettled and death-haunted from the ray gun on the album cover on down, but it’s also animated by Grohl’s good cheer and winsome pop sensibility and radiant goofiness. (Dig his pigtails in the super-silly “Big Me” video.) Incredibly, the drummer from Nirvana had refashioned himself, in an instant, into a charismatic frontman and spotlight-hogging rock star in his own right, and nowadays when I stumble across archival footage like this, it takes me a couple seconds to ID Grohl as the live-action Beavis and Butt-Head character swaying awkwardly on the far left.
Nirvana and Charles Barkley's SNL promo rehearsal, 1993 pic.twitter.com/IPIkWmM2oj— Pigeons & Planes (@PigsAndPlans) January 29, 2021
The Foo Fighters’ biggest song is 1997’s “Everlong,” their best song is 2005’s massive “Best of You” (Prince agrees), and their last song I can’t live without is 2007’s “Let It Die,” a small masterpiece of dynamic ferocity that shocks you with how thrilling a roller-coaster ride Grohl can weld out of a doggedly unsurprising quiet-to-very-loud arc. Counting this new one, the Foo Fighters have put out four more albums since then, none terrible, none terribly revelatory. The previous one, 2017’s Concrete and Gold, strikes me as the definitive Foos album title: shiny and immersive if you spend a lot of time with it, drab and nondescript if you don’t.
But Medicine at Midnight is a little sprier from the start, a brisk nine songs that throw a few soft but flamboyant curveballs, from the bass-driven noirish funk of the title track to the glammy tiny-cowbell romp “Cloudspotter.” I do not, historically, give much of a hoot what Grohl is ever singing about, and I still don’t, but I still find myself drawn to his affably screamy voice anyway, even when—maybe especially when—I can predict his soaring chord changes before they happen and feel the cleansing guitar distortion kick in a few seconds before it actually does. In a medium-cool riff-fest like “Holding Poison,” one struggles with the fine line between boring and satisfying, between static and consistent. Except it never sounds like a struggle at all.
So the Foos are, and have always been, and God willing will always remain safe, and so far as rock ’n’ roll goes this will always be, paradoxically, a risky move, and also the most striking proof that Grohl’s experiences with Nirvana, both the generation-defining highs and the crushing lows, have never left him. “We’ve been accused of being the least dangerous band in the world, and I think that that’s justified in some ways,” Grohl told The New York Times in a February profile of the Foo Fighters. “Because I know what it’s like to be in that other band, and I know what that can lead to.” The best song on Medicine at Midnight is an anti-war anthem called “Waiting on a War”: It starts out gentle and acoustic (try to guess the chord changes) and eventually blows up to fiery arena-rock proportions (try to guess exactly when). You can live without it, which is not necessarily a knock against it.
Maybe you caught the Foo Fighters playing their 2002 hit “Times Like These” during President Biden’s weird distanced inauguration spectacular in January; maybe you chuckled at the realization that a 19-year-old medium-cool rock anthem is the perfect way to sum up Biden’s worldview, a centrist recreation of an idyllic past that never quite existed. But Grohl can still sell that song, and any other medium-cool jam he cares to sing, as a rock star drained of danger and profound surprise but never quite of vitality. “There’s got to be more to this than that,” he chants as “Waiting on a War” finally goes supernova, and there isn’t, really, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enough.