New Textures For the Old Ceremony: The Foo Fighters’ tight new rock ‘n’ roll record.
With a Rock n Roll Hall of Fame nomination and a slot in the Presidential Inauguration that was both expected and lauded, there are a lot of miles and years between the fatherly Foo Fighters of now and the scrappy grunge delinquent that Dave Grohl was back in 1995. With every record, the band has grown and evolved but also been able to keep one foot planted in that boundless Grohl energy that he had with his first heady declarations about fingernails. That crucible of grunge that groomed Dave as he played in Nirvana was informed by the puerile irreverence of punk and metal but was also informed just as much by the disciplined songwriting precision of Lennon-McCartney, Sholtz and Delp of Boston, or May and Mercury of Queen. Punk energy + arena choir hooks is the Foo Fighters M.O. in a nutshell. They have become the band the world looks to in order to revitalize after dark times and re-contextualize the big moments of life.
Medicine at Midnight comes nearly a year after it was recorded. With the pandemic dashing all plans to tour the album, the record company urged them to shelf it until they could properly hit the road to support it. We rounded the corner into 2021 with little hope of a new concert season so the boys put an end to the postponement and sent it off into the world. These record company execs didn’t count on two things. First, this is the Foo Fighters. A 25-year career has bred a deeply loyal fanbase from the B-side bootleggin’ die-hards to the casual Spotify playlisters. The album was gonna be checked out regardless. Second, the gap in the industry caused by the slowdown actually gave people more of a reason to take a closer listen. An attention that is warranted this time around as the group has embraced collaboration outside the garage band lineup and found a more developed, classic rock-style approach to the songwriting. Online performances and talk show slots replaced the cross-country rip on the bus. The record was gonna do fine.
The main ethos of the record seems to be surrendering any notions of what the band needs to be in order to serve the song. The foundational classic rock writing is scored with percolating percussion and substantial background vocals from a host of female singers. The band will “fill the screen” when needed but are comfortable leaving ample space in the composition. Maturity, taste, and trust show through. ‘Making A Fire’ kicks things off with a positive get up and go attitude. Taylor Hawkins snappy drums are punched up with funky 3/4 time guitars. The choir of background singers rising “na-na-na-nas” elevate the track into new territory for the Foos. Not off-brand but not on-brand either. An evolution.
The first single ‘Shame Shame’ was placed out front with good reason even though it might not have been the safest choice. It is the most noticeable departure for the band on the album. The song demands you lean forward. “What are they up to now? I thought I had them figured out…”. Following a simple but effective drum intro recorded in a big stairwell in an old house (a la ‘When the Levee Breaks’) the band enters lightly, creeping in in unison. The riff scuttles down your spine like the prickly penetrating lyrics that it underscores. Grohl articulates the recoil of this emotion that we feel like we hold alone yet we all share, with an eloquence that rivals much of his best work. He surrenders himself to the wave of his backups for the lofty pre-chorus before sucking back down to the simple refrain of “Shame, shame”. The solo is simple, the changes are simple but the song is powerful. A very fine production.
More bells and whistles join the fray on Nate Mendel favourite ‘Cloudspotter’. Punchy as all hell and pulsing with guitar accents, Dave’s verse hits ‘Low Rider’ territory with his cool cruising vocal delivery. The chorus erupts with an almost 80s hair metal refrain of “Swing, swing guillotine queen/Swinging from the left to the right/Bang, bang, bang, you’re so mean/Go and look good, go and look good”. A chromatic run drives the chopper-revving ending.
At 36 minutes for 9 songs, there’s no room for dilly-dallying. ‘Cloudspotter’s end shoots right into the emotional centrepiece ‘Waiting on a War’. The anthemic lament for our perpetually on edge political culture was inspired by his time growing up in the nation’s capital and always being aware that at any time, D.C. could be targeted by an attack. It was like living with a bulls-eye on your back. Undeniably catchy vocals that demand a sing-along, uncomplicated yet smartly chosen chords. The string section adds drama but Grohl’s universally recognized down-to-earth personality prevents it from coming off as too cheesy. Big speed up crescendo to drive it all home. The track will be a staple whenever the band can get back to playing stadiums.
The title track shows that Dave’s time jamming with Prince clearly rubbed off on him. This tight little after-hours groove is well out of the 90s grunge mould and finds the band locking it down taut. Not to be forgotten, the band gives a healthy headbang of a nod to their older fans with the thunder-chuggin’ ‘No Son of Mine’. The second single is a straight-ahead sprint out of the gates with an almost Rammstein-esque guitar hook. ‘Holding Poison’ amply takes advantage of Hawkins’ stop-start drums, hittin’ that clipped hi-hat especially hard. The galloping outro is propelled into the stratosphere thanks to that sturdy backline of voices.
‘Chasing Birds’ is 100% Tom Petty influenced. Specifically, the dreamy track ‘Like a Diamond’ off of his unappreciated gem 2002’s The Last DJ. The plodding muted drums, lazily strummed chords, and lightly pontificating lyrics all reek of the Heartbreaker-in-chief in the best possible way. Dave does have his place as a one-time Heartbreaker after all. The closer ‘Love Dies Young’s rousing disco beat and cute high guitar hook would make it a career-high single for any up-and-coming indie band but for Dave and the boys, it’s just another day at the office.
For all the intriguing twists and turns on this efficiently short album, at the end of the day, it’s just a solid rock n roll record. Grohl and the boys have the holy task of penning a memorable track for the fans at the heart of their work. This album walks that fine line that record companies always hope can be done but is rarely achieved. It explores new territory introducing new classic tunes, all while satisfying the die-hard fans.