If you talk to people about it you will likely find two contrary views about the new Foo Fighters album Medicine At Midnight, which came out in early February. One of them (and I found this view more prevalent among the younger crowd) labelled it too commercial, lacking in the garage rock credentials that the band wore on its sleeve when it evolved out of the 1990s grungy, alternative rock scene in Seattle. When I was playing it, one teenage music fan (disclaimer: it was my daughter) reacted harshly; she derisively labelled it “dad rock” but then she may have had other reasons to do that. The other view (espoused by the older crowd) is a more considered evaluation of the Foo Fighters’ 10th album as optimistic, bright and hopeful, the best medicine for these extraordinarily unsure times.
Medicine At Midnight is quite likely the slickest album the Fighters have released since their eponymous debut album in 1995. That first one seemed like a natural evolution from the music of the legendary grunge band Nirvana, which the Foo Fighters’ founder and frontman, Dave Grohl, was a drummer in. Nirvana disbanded after lead singer Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. After the first album, Grohl assembled a band and Foo Fighters became one of the most powerful rock acts in the latter half of the 1990s.
Their sound, an amalgam of Nirvana-style raw, heavy rock and more melody-driven, classic rock-style guitar riffs, gave the band a trademark identity. It also made them super successful. They filled arenas and had many songs that figured high in the charts.
In Foo Fighters, Grohl morphed from a former drummer into a guitarist, singer and songwriter, diligently helming the band’s impressive journey, which has till date seen the release of 10 albums and countless sold-out gigs.
Incidentally, the recently launched Medicine At Midnight was planned to complement a 25th anniversary tour. Though the pandemic put paid to that plan, the songs on the album were written and recorded in pre-pandemic months—that may explain their upbeat, sometimes even joyous vibes, but it also makes Medicine At Midnight the perfect soundtrack if you are weary of the gloom and uncertainty that envelop life right now.
Medicine At Midnight was, after all, planned as a celebratory album. In an interview to NPR after the album’s release, Grohl said: “We started the band in 1995... We wanted to make our 10th album to celebrate all of that. We had planned a world tour. We had made a few different documentaries. We had made videos. The trucks were packed; the T-shirts were pressed. Everything was ready to go. The album was finished. It was mixed and mastered.” Then covid-19 happened, and the album remained on the shelf for a year. Discussing the making of the new album, Grohl said he had taken a look at what the band had done over the past 25 years: “loud and dissonant and distorted and hard rock or punk rock” but also “things that were acoustic and orchestrated and much more gentle, and everything in-between”. But also that Foo Fighters had never made an uptempo, boogie-rock party album. That’s how Medicine At Midnight became what it is—an unpretentiously upbeat, feel-good rock album.
Disco, dance and pop aren’t the labels that come to mind when you think of a seriously heavy rock band such as the Foo Fighters. Their music has been everything but danceable. Medicine At Midnight, however, is an unabashed party album. It’s a speedy, let’s-let-our-hair-down sort of album. The opener, Making A Fire, where catchy choruses and classic guitar riffs weave together an exuberant soundscape, sets the tone for the album.
Another track, Shame Shame, is poppish (If you want to/ I’ll make you feel something real just to bother you/ Now I got you/ Under my thumb like a drug, I will smother you/ I’ll be the one, be the moon, be the sun/ Be the rain in your song, go put that record on/ If you want to/ I’ll be the one, be the tongue that will swallow you), but it’s that very same pop factor that makes it a mind-cleanser tune your feet begin tapping to.
Some reviewers view Medicine At Midnight as a disappointing album, a gimmick in which Grohl and his band deliberately try role-playing as a frivolous dance band. True, if looked at as part of its catalogue of albums, Medicine At Midnight will be the oddest member. A dance album from the Fighters is certainly quite paradoxical. And had the band released the album as part of its aborted 25th anniversary celebrations, it would certainly have seemed a strange way to celebrate that journey.
But that didn’t happen. The postponed release actually works better for Medicine At Midnight. There couldn’t have been a better time for it. When you are locked down, or quarantined, or simply tired of the havoc the pandemic has created in our lives, a blast of dance music may not be unwelcome.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.