Over break, my family gathered in the living room to watch the Celebrating America program following the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Like many families across the country, we were celebrating the election results and eager to see live music, even if only through a screen. The next day, my aunt and grandmother drove from Rhode Island to have a late lunch with my family in Massachusetts.
After devouring a sandwich platter, we turned to discussing the election results and the performances from the Celebrating America program. Luckily, our mutual satisfaction with the election’s outcome prevented a family meal from devolving into contentious debate. But, on the topic of the musical performances, we were not fortunate enough to reach a consensus.
“You know, I thought most of the acts were good last night,” my aunt—a notoriously harsh critic—said. “But I was not a fan of whatever that guy with the shaggy hair and his band were doing.” That band is Foo Fighters. And the shaggy-haired man is their frontman and primary songwriter Dave Grohl.
Building on the outsider ethos of Nirvana, Foo Fighters continued the grunge movement and its characteristic use of heavy guitar riffs, angst-ridden lyricism, and red flannels. The youthful rebellion of Foo Fighters’ tracks has endured despite Grohl and his bandmates resembling suburban dads more likely to spend their time at a microbrewery than an underground rave. It is this element of their music that perhaps dismayed my aunt and turned her off of their performance.
Unfortunately, their newest project Medicine At Midnight sacrifices these rebellious sensibilities for dance groove-laden, arena rock that, while palatable, lacks the emotional potency of their prior work. Part of the reason for this is perhaps the band’s renewed partnership with producer Greg Kurstin. Kurstin—who produced their last album Concrete and Gold—furnishes the tracks with the pristine polish that worked wonders on Sia’s This Is Acting, Beck’s Colors, and Adele’s “Hello.”
While Kurstin is an excellent craftsman, he sands the edges of the band’s sound to the point where the roughness and basement-jam aesthetic of their earlier releases is indiscernible. The project, in this regard, is analogous to another band’s late-career release–Arctic Monkeys’ AM. Just as the Arctic Monkeys’ Sheffield roots are almost indistinguishable amid the Sinatra-esque croons of Alex Turner and the shimmering production, Foo Fighters’ latest release renders them rootless—trading their Seattleite nonconformity for a pastiche of ’80s party rock. While Grohl notes David Bowie, The Cars, and The Rolling Stones as inspirations for this album, his tunes are nowhere near as infectious.
Take the first track, “Making a Fire.” Here, the guttural roars and screeching guitar solos featured on earlier Foo Fighters albums are replaced by a chorus of “na na’s” and an uninspired riff ad infinitum. And the lyrics aren’t much better. Grohl’s hackneyed chorus is “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.” Grohl enters dangerous territory here, crafting a song that would fit perfectly in a dentist-office playlist composed of Daughtry, Imagine Dragons, and sleepy acoustic covers that function as worse versions of already terrible songs.
On the equally awful “Cloudspotter,” Grohl sings “Refuse me while I kiss the sky”—a tribute to Jimi Hendrix’s iconic line from “Purple Haze.” What was certainly a well-intentioned attempt to pay homage to a rock legend doesn’t land perhaps because of the considerable difference in quality between Grohl’s tune and the source material. While Hendrix’s tune is rebellious, raw, and rambunctious, “Cloudspotter” is frustratingly refined and devoid of risk.
Although the album may be underwhelming, an artist of Grohl’s caliber will undoubtedly have their moments of brilliance. One such moment occurs in the opening seconds of “Waiting On A War” where Grohl sings, “I’ve been waiting on a war since I was young / Since I was a little boy with a toy gun.” Grohl’s cadence and gruff tone here closely mirror his performance on “The Best of You” where he roars, “I’ve got another confession to make” at the onset of the iconic track. The fact that Grohl and Foo Fighters are at their best on this track is no coincidence. Unlike other tracks, like the aforementioned “Making a Fire” as well as “Shame Shame,” “No Son Of Mine,” “Holding Poison,” and “Waiting On A War” see Foo Fighters return to their roots.
In the promotional email for “Waiting On A War,” Grohl writes that the song’s inspiration came from his daughter who asked last fall, “Daddy, is there going to be a war?” His daughter’s anxiety about our current moment reminded him of his own childhood. He writes, “As a child growing up in the suburbs of Washington DC, I was always afraid of war. I had nightmares of missiles in the sky and soldiers in my backyard, most likely brought upon by the political tension of the early 1980’s and my proximity to the Nation’s Capitol. My youth was spent under the dark cloud of a hopeless future.”
Like his email, Grohl’s lyrics capture the tumultuous last 16 months that saw Donald Trump’s ineptitude in combating a pandemic equalled only by his contempt for democracy. His commentary on the track is incisive and timely. It’s a shame he opts instead for uninspired platitudes like “love dies young” on much of the album.
Photo Courtesy of RCA Records Label