Tomorrow, the new Foo Fighters album, Medicine At Midnight, will be released. On one hand, you probably already know if this is of interest to you or not: The Foo Fighters aren’t exactly the most sonically or stylistically adventurous band on the planet, so if you’ve historically enjoyed their particular brand of pop-infused hard rock, there’s a decent chance you’ll be curious to give the new one a spin. On the other hand, this isn’t quite the same collection of songs you’d normally expect from the band. That divergence in sound makes itself known right out of the gate; after opening track “Making A Fire” introduces a stomping mid-tempo drum pattern, followed by a typically classic-rock-inspired riff, the shift comes abruptly—a chorus of “Nah nah na-na-na-na nahh!” voices erupt over the song, leading the casual listener to wonder if maybe they’ve accidentally thrown on late-period Queen by accident. One By One Part II, this is not.
The rest of the record follows suit. Here, a Motörhead-meets-Meat Loaf barnburner with choral arrangements in the background (“No Son Of Mine”); there, a Captain And Tennille-level acoustic ballad (“Chasing Birds”). There’s still the occasional old-school Foo Fighters track (“Waiting On A War,” “Holding Poison”), but even those have been generously leavened with new levels of synths and ’80s-rock flourishes. It didn’t come out of nowhere: The group’s 2017 record, Concrete And Gold, began tentatively pushing in this direction. Still, it’s enough to make a Foo Fighters fan pause, take stock of the group, and wonder if this is a band they have an interest in continuing to follow. Two A.V. Club staffers, assistant editor Alex McLevy and editorial coordinator Gwen Ihnat, are longtime listeners of Dave Grohl and company; they had notably different reactions to Medicine At Midnight, and decided to sit down and hash out their opposing views to determine just what, if anything, this new record has to offer.
Gwen Ihnat: I will never quit the Foo Fighters: My love of the first two records still knows no bounds (I would put on The Colour And The Shape tomorrow) and they’ve given me some of the greatest live-show experiences—yes, even in arena rock—that I’ve ever had. In fact, it’s the opening bands (Naked Raygun, Cheap Trick) and the live covers (“Under Pressure,” “Miss You,” “School’s Out”) that indicate the unbreakable tie between Dave Grohl and fans like me: We all grew up on the same classic rock radio. The band is never better than when Dave and company just dive into that unabashed love for bell-bottoms-era rock ’n’ roll.
So I was disappointed when the Foos debuted their new song “Shame Shame” on their recent Saturday Night Love appearance. A snoozier song has scarcely been released; when people say that the Foo Fighters have no new sound to offer, this track, so somnambulant as to appear to actually be running backward, is exactly what they’re talking about. It’s not the worst song on Medicine At Midnight (that would be the execrably schmaltzy “Chasing Birds,” which aimed for “Walking After You” territory and failed miserably). But since “Shame” was the first song I heard, I approached the rest of these new MAM songs tenuously—and was greatly surprised (and relieved). Kickoff “Making A Fire” is a triumphant ’70s-sounding anthem aided by the chorus mentioned above, bringing to mind sun-scorched convertible seats and the smell of Coppertone. I love the smoky percussion that brings the title track to life, evoking a dramatic Eagles saga circa The Long Run. (Taylor Hawkins is having a ton of fun on this record, you can tell.) And even though the sentiment of closing track “Love Dies Young” is a downer, it’s bolstered by the glossy ’80s-sounding guitars driving the track.
“Shame Shame” doesn’t even belong on this album. And yet, Alex, you apparently like that song. What gives?
Alex McLevy: I understand why you grabbed “Shame Shame” like a cudgel to beat me with, Gwen. I think your reaction was shared by a lot of people that night on SNL, but I also think current events colored that perception. Joe Biden had just been declared the official victor of the 2020 presidential election, and the country was in a celebratory mood. “Shame Shame” went over like a fart in church—a dispiriting, downbeat number when people were looking for a “Times Like These” anthem. But had Trump won, I think it probably would’ve played very aptly; more importantly, it was just the kind of left turn, stylistically speaking, the band needed. It’s a bleak, minor-key dirge with some interesting vocal melodies, and I admire the attempt at something new—I’d venture to say it’s one of my favorite tracks on the new record, which should tell you something significant about the dim light in which I hold the rest of it.
Like you, I was a fan from the start; hell, even more so, considering Grohl actually reached out to me as a young punk kid to offer words of encouragement when I needed them. I’ll always be curious to hear what he’s up to. But a funny thing happened over the past few years. First, there was the Sonic Highways documentary and accompanying album, which was the first time I realized that Grohl wasn’t exactly a world-class lyricist. That was a great music doc series that unfortunately ended each episode with a new Foo fighters song, the lyrics prominently displayed on the screen—a genuine mistake, if the show wanted people to come away with a newfound admiration for Grohl’s words. Similarly, I could never really get into Concrete And Gold, which sounded a little too much like a bar band playing covers of old classic-rock B-sides—amusing at times, but hardly inspiring.
But good god, does this latest album crap the bed. You call “Making A Fire” triumphant; I burst out laughing the first time I heard those opening “nah nah nah”s, and I have a hard time imagining anyone taking it seriously, let alone finding it awesome. It’s an attempt to bust out some of that old FM radio flavor you mention, but frankly, the band doesn’t have the songwriting chops to incorporate such ambitious flourishes. Just as the acoustic half of In Your Honor always felt like a misguided detour away from Grohl’s strong suits as a musician (i.e. loud-as-fuck guitars and booming rock choruses), Medicine At Midnight’s efforts to bring in synth-heavy and orchestral retro-rock influences play like someone’s uncool uncle who used to gig in a hair-metal band discovering Pro Tools and thinking, “Sweet, I always wanted to make Bat Out Of Hell IV!” While I admire Grohl’s proud embrace of the “dad rock” label, it doesn’t mean he needs to actually transform into one of those dads trying to relive glory days that were never really his; other people already made that music, and made it very well, so seeing him do a substandard gloss on it just feels like a bummer. It’s Homer Simpson explaining the competent drum work of Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer to his kids.
But maybe I’m being churlish to the rest of the album. Gwen, we haven’t discussed some of the other tracks yet; aside from your favorites (which, again, hard “agree to disagree”), is the record as a whole really delivering all these awesome riffs and throwback pleasures for you?
Gwen Ihnat: Wow, that is some straight-up vitriol from an alleged fan, Alex (you passed churlish a while back with “uncool uncle”; c’mon, Dave would always be the coolest uncle). Granted, I believe my bar is (much) lower than yours; at this point in their career, with album number 10, I’m happy just to have Foo songs I want to hear more than a few times. To that end, while thoughtful rock song “Waiting On A War” just sounds like a more muted “Times Like These” or “The Best Of You,” it still manages to grab me at the end. Although I totally get what you’re saying about the lyrics: The “Is there more to this than that?” refrain is banal enough to slip far below even my Foo Fighters limbo bar. I welcome the bared musical teeth displayed in “No Son Of Mine,” which is a fun hard-rocker I can already picture witnessing live. But in a fairly compact (nine-track) album, there are a few, like “Cloudspotter” and “Holding Poison,” that just aren’t sticking with me no matter how many times I’m listening to them. (Meanwhile, I’ll probably never get “Shame Shame”’s plodding melody line out of my brain, and I really want to.) If I was grading, I would put this in the C+ range, hoping that by album number 11 the band might discover more of those infectious rock hooks I love.
But at this point, they don’t really have to. The next record could be all covers, or acoustic, or live. The Foo Fighters have built up enough rock (to read: “rawk”) goodwill to get a lifetime pass from me, and I’ll keep going to see them live until they actually resemble those octogenarians in the “Run” video. At this point, a good Foo song—and yes, I would put “Making The Fire” and “Love Dies Young” in that category, I enjoyed those backing vocals and ’80s riffs you mock so fiercely—is just gravy. It’s been a long year. Let’s let the Foos have their fun.
AM: Hey, I only begrudge someone fun when it’s substandard material nonetheless offered up to fans as something they should pay money to own! Oh, wait. Look, you’re right that I’ve been mocking some of these tracks fiercely, but in my defense, they mostly deserve it. “Love Dies Young,” for example, is an album closer that sounds more like a Journey or Heart outtake than a 21st-century Foo Fighters song, and “Cloudspotter”—a track you smartly omit from your defense, lest it make my argument for me—comes across like a tune Ace Frehley would’ve set aside for being too corny. When Grohl covered Frehley’s “Ozone” for the B-side of the “Big Me” single way back when, it seemed like a good-natured goof; now I worry he wanted to write songs that dumb all along. (I’m being kind by not just excerpting large blocks of lyrics from “Cloudspotter” here; let’s just include the refrain “Callin’ on someone else’s dime / put your 2 cents where the sun don’t shine” and leave it at that.)
I really wanted to like Medicine At Midnight. As you rightly point out, Dave Grohl will always be the cool uncle, even when he puts out misbegotten mistakes like this one. I’ll still probably call myself a fan, and will still absolutely crank the speakers whenever “The Pretender” comes on. I used to have a theory that every other record the Foos made was good to great, somewhat akin to the “even-numbered Star Trek movies” concept. Wasting Light, In Your Honor, Colour And The Shape (I know I’m cheating a little here, but you get the idea)—all delivery systems for a more-than-half-full glass of great rawk. But I’m worried they might have settled into a groove I’m no longer that excited about: rewriting old genres and past-their-prime styles, rather than distilling what they’ve done into badass new flavors. Grohl can deliver great hits, but he seems to have backslid into being a little too comfortable goofing on the hard rock of his youth. At least “Shame Shame” was different in a way that didn’t feel like an attempt to ape something else; I don’t expect a revelatory new phase of the band—but are a couple catchy singles too much to ask?