‘Medicine at Midnight’: Foo Fighters Keep Carrying Rock’s Flickering Torch

You have to admire Foo Fighters’ commitment to rock music at a time when it’s never been less popular — their version of it, anyway. Listening to the band’s new album “Medicine at Midnight,” you’d think it was 1996 and they were riding high after the success of “My Hero” and “Everlong.” Truth be told, not one but two singles from their 2017 album “Concrete And Gold” topped Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, whether or not you heard them on your local radio station; and it’s exactly that longevity, and consistency, that elevated them to the ranks of the genre’s standard bearers even as its commercial domination steadily disintegrated. But even if a tenth Foo Fighters album isn’t likely to win over a lot of new fans, to the band or the genre, “Medicine at Midnight” demonstrates that they’re still top-shelf practitioners of an increasingly lost art, with nine new songs showcasing their timeless chops.

Foo Fighters debuted “Shame Shame,” the album’s first single, on “Saturday Night Live” on the weekend after the 2020 election, and it wouldn’t be difficult to interpret it as a reaction to particularly volatile political times, especially as its chorus echoes the famous chant bellowed through Cersei’s march through the streets of King’s Landing on “Game of Thrones.” But Grohl revealed that its music video was actually inspired by a childhood nightmare, and he chose it to lead off the promotional cycle because it announced a different sound for the band, featuring a chugging midtempo groove complemented by jagged guitars and pizzicato strings. I’m not quite sure it accomplishes that goal — Grohl’s voice, and his sense of melody, is so singular that there’s no mistaking the track for anyone else’s — but Taylor Hawkins works overtime to create a backbeat worthy of sampling tomorrow for a hip-hop or electronic song. 

Meanwhile, “Waiting On A War” actually delivers the political commentary hinted at on “Shame Shame,” as Grohl reflects on the ominous prospect of a destructive global conflict that’s been threatened from the Cold War to today (“I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young / Since I was a little boy with a toy gun”). As poignant as the song is, Grohl attacks it like a power ballad, trying a bit too hard to create an anthem when he’s already got all of the ingredients he needs to make it a meaningful song without swinging for the fences vocally. Gently quoting the first notes of Heart’s “Barracuda,” the third single “No Son Of Mine” forms the third part of this oblique trilogy as he cheekily parrots the language of hypocritical leaders who commit the crimes they supposedly oppose, singing: “No son of mine will ever do / The work of villains, the will of fools / If you believe it, it must be true.” Regardless, none of these songs particularly violate the musical image that the band has created for itself, and political content or not, they’re mostly pretty straightforward musically — if no less fun to listen to because of it.

Going back to the album opener, “Making a Fire,” Grohl employs a female choir for some “na-na-na”s as he urges a companion to let go of fear and take their shot after too much caution for too long, singing, “But if this is our last time / Make up your mind / I’ve waited a lifetime to live / It’s time to ignite, I’m making a fire.” He also duets with a female vocalist on “Cloudspotter,” an approach that breaks the repetition of Grohl’s sometimes same-y performance style, as he simultaneously delivers perfectly evocative heavy metal gibberish (“Silver screen sister in a suit and tie”) while turning a few classic lyrics on their ear (“Refuse me while I kiss the sky”). Grohl has indicated that David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album is an accurate point of reference for the musical direction of “Medicine At Midnight,” and the title track encourages that more explicitly than any other track, as Hawkins’ drums echo with the same cavernous funk that producer Nile Rodgers applied to what would become one of Bowie’s biggest-selling singles. 

“Holding Poison” has an angularity that may remind you of Grohl’s work with Queens of the Stone Age, if with less of the precision that defines Josh Homme’s work — and indeed, he delivers a vocal performance here that Homme would have turned into a signature song on par with “No One Knows.” But it’s “Chasing Birds” that quietly steals the album, a cross between some great lost track from Ween’s “White Pepper” and a Cat Stevens ‘70s AM-radio staple, where Grohl manages for almost the first time on the record not to put the gas pedal of his voice automatically to the floor. Honestly, it’s a song like this where you realize just how good a voice he really has, and versatile to boot; his mellow melancholy as he sings “Here comes another heart attack / The road to hell is paved with good intentions / Dark inventions of mine” suggests that Grohl could give these songs a bit less of a dad-rock edge if he’d switch things up and occasionally manipulate their tone a bit. 

The album ends with the propulsive, misanthropic “Love Dies Young,” a song better suited to, say, 2005 than 2021, just narrowly avoiding becoming throwback mall punk only because of Grohl’s wizened vocals and the band’s tight musicality. But with just nine tracks, “Medicine At Midnight” suggests that even if they haven’t grown too much, or taken too many risks outside their comfort zone, Grohl and company at least know well enough to make the best version of the music that people expect to hear, and not overstay their welcome. And even if rock continues its steady and slow departure from the commercial limelight, a record like this guarantees they’ll remain among the most successful and enduring nostalgia acts in their genre, not just because they rock as hard as ever after 25 years, but deliver new songs that often sound indistinguishable — for good and bad — from the ones that made them stars in the first place.

Medicine at Midnight” releases Feb. 5 on Apple Music.