A Steady Ship in Strange Seas
Despite Medicine at Midnight (5 February 2021; RCA Roswell) being both recorded and released in very strange circumstances, Dave Grohl has remained on course to produce another solid Foo Fighters’ album. “I think the reason why we’re still here is because we disconnect ourselves from the popular stuff that’s going on,” he says.
The first strange occurence was that the album was recorded in what sounds like a large old haunted house in Encino, Los Angeles. “I knew the vibes were definitely off, but the sound was fucking on. We would come back to the studio the next day and all of the guitars would be detuned. Or the setting we'd put on the [mixing] board, all of them had gone back to zero. We would open up a Pro Tools session and tracks would be missing. There were some tracks that were put on there that we didn't put on there,” says Grohl, who also says he recorded ‘unexplainable’ video footage at the time, but has not been allowed to release it.
The second other-worldly event in this album’s birth has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that the global tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band’s formation had to be postponed.
A further twist in the tale is that Grohl has described Medicine at Midnight as the Foo Fighter’s Let’s Dance, and suggested that the band have pivoted towards a more Bowiesque pop sound. It is true that the drummer on Let’s Dance, Omar Hakim, appears on many of the tracks and that producer Greg Kurstin (Adele) favours a more commerial sound, but fans need not be concerned that the band have abandoned the big rock riffs, because they haven’t. The Foo Fighters may flirt with other sounds but they know what they do best, and they do it here.
Grohl laid down the basic tracks for this record before turning to his band to help develop them. In this he was well-served by long-time members Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett on guitar, Taylor Hawkins on drums, Nate Mendel on bass and Rami Jaffee on keyboards. Among the dozen or so other artists in support, it is perhaps also worth highlighting the names of Barbara Gruska of Belle Brigade renown, and the frontman’s 14 year old daughter, Violet Grohl.
In fact it was Grohl’s eldest daughter who inspired the anthemic Waiting on a War, when she asked her father a few years ago whether the world was heading for war. This evoked his own boyhood fears as he wondered about where the planet was heading. On a live version of the track Grohl can be seen starting the song on his Gibson Elvis Presley Dove acoustic before it builds into a crescendo of noise, which presumably echoes his childhood anxieties and, by extension, those of all children.
The album kicks off however with Making a Fire, with the Foos’ familiar heavy rock beat and guitar accompanied by a naive sing-along chant. This is followed by the much stronger Shame Shame, which finds Grohl crooning rather than growling, but it has an anthemic quality to it and could prove to be another staple in their future live sets.
Cloudspotter and the title track are more funky offerings and reflect Grohl’s observation that the album has a more ‘Bowie feel’ to it. In live performances on both tracks the frontman can be seen playing his signature DG-335 electric guitar.
The Foo Fighters’ return to a heavy rock sound on No Son of Mine, which was reportedly written in tribute to Motörhead’s Lemmy. Grohl was a close friend of the legendary heavy metal bassist and lead singer but he doesn’t have his grit or his persona and perhaps that is why it feels like this track falls short of its ambition. The album closes on a high, however, with two infectious numbers: Chasing Birds and Love Dies Young.
Medicine at Midnight is not revolutionary, but neither is it intended to be. In strange and unsettling times the Foo Fighters have produced an album that is reliable and familiar but at the same time contains some welcome twists and surprises. Grohl knows what the band do best and, thankfully for their fans, they continue to do it.