In 1986 a scrawny seventeen-year-old sat behind the kit for his first performance with DC punk band Scream. As a high school dropout, he was already on his way to fame, fortune, and one of the greatest musical careers of his generation. Few people have as much talent (or have encountered as much luck) as Dave Grohl. He spent almost four years touring with Scream before the group suddenly disbanded, and just as suddenly Grohl found himself drumming for the Seattle-based group Nirvana. The rest of the story is, at this point, music history.
The weight of that history just continues to grow. It’s been almost 25 year since Grohl, reeling from the loss of Kurt Cobain, self-recorded an album he called Foo Fighters. Since then he and his friends have adopted the name and toured the world dozens of times over. Though it’s members have rotated over the years, the band has always been singularly dedicated to glorifying the power of music in general and rock-and-roll in particular. Weeks ago, Foo Fighters released their 10th studio album, Medicine at Midnight, and it seems the history behind them may be pulling the band underwater.
The Foo Fighters are known as much for their workhorse touring schedule as they are for their over-the-top, goofy attitudes. They have a history of making bizarre and hilarious music videos, like this 1997 video for the band’s greatest hit, “Everlong”. This attitude is as much a feature of the Foo Fighters as it is of Grohl himself. The style extends to his other projects. While working with Them Crooked Vultures, the group filmed a video about Grohl’s caffeine addiction.
It’s all part of the imagine that Grohl cultivates as a sort of antidote to his own fame. Going from one massively popular band to the next is enough to give anyone a big head, but Grohl has kept himself remarkably humble and down-to-Earth. He revels in the pure joy of performing music. The allure of sex, drugs, and the other frills of music industry success don’t mean much to him, especially now that he’s 50 years old and a married father of three. Despite being a music icon, Grohl presents himself as the same kid who some thirty years ago was practicing the drums on a stack of pillows in his bedroom. He frequently tells the story of how he “got into” music and first began the journey to who he has become today. (A particularly delightful version of this came in the form of his 2013 keynote speech at South by Southwest).
Grohl’s boyish and unapologetic love for the music he creates makes every Foo Fighters album impossible to hate, even if they are becoming harder to love. We might have heard it all before, but there’s still joy behind every note that’s played. Medicine at Midnight opens with “Making a Fire”, a classic Foos rock romp cleverly mixed with a choral backing that brings in the sweet excitement of a Saturday morning spent on the road to the next show. The song is a solid enough entry, but this exact route of musical experimentation is something fans heard four years ago on “The Sky is a Neighborhood” and three years before that on “I Am a River”.
Likewise, track three is “Cloudspotter” a song bursting with punk-ish exuberance that the band plays with absolute enthusiasm – despite the fact that it sounds like they’re covering something off of 97’s The Colour And The Shape.
At every turn, Medicine at Midnight offers the chance to explore expertly-crafted sonic highways that fans have already been driving across for almost a quarter-century. It’s impossible not to appreciate the melodic mastery of a song like “Waiting on a War”, but the band isn’t making any moves to innovate the sound they perfected back in 2007 with Echoes, Silence, Patience, and Grace. With other albums, at other times, Foo Fighters has gotten away with offering yet another entry of stylistic purity, but the over-generalized pop-rock sentiments (“There should be less war!”) suggested in these songs fall flat here and now. Foo Fighters have never been a group to take a stance on anything other than music, but after voluntarily delaying the planned 2020 release for Medicine at Midnight, Grohl’s milquetoast messaging at last feels out of place.
Still, everyone is clearly enjoying themselves here. Changing context reshapes the way a new Foo Fighters album is received, but the band is operating with the exact same mission statement as ever. They are the perennial, capital-r Rock band, and while listeners might be craving the kind of innovation that brings rock into the 2020s, Grohl and his friends are more committed than ever to reminding us just how good the good ‘ol days were.