Over the past couple of decades, a dwindling number of mainstream rock bands have made dependability an essential part of their band. But even with Dave Grohl having fully assumed the role of rock’s chief ambassador, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that this strategy has ever been a survival tactic for the Foo Fighters – now twenty-six years into their career, the band has pretty much always traded in the most reliable qualities of rock n’ roll, recognizing that its successful recipe lies less in the intricacies of flavor than the simple pleasures of familiarity. Their latest string of albums have effectively toed the line between consistent and formulaic: they’ve yet to top 2011’s Wasting Light, a garage-inspired album with enough bite and hooks that remains their strongest case for a defiantly classicist approach to the genre.
In the decade since, the Foos have stuck to their guns, but their trick has been a refusal to dial down the ambition even as their formula has largely remained the same. Every record since Wasting Light has come with a PR campaign that’s big enough to overshadow the music itself: 2014’s Sonic Highways came with an accompanying HBO documentary series showing the band traveling around America’s key rock cities, though you could say the album came with the series. For its follow-up, 2017’s Concrete and Gold, they announced the launch of a massive festival, bringing back the name of a mostly forgotten festival from the 70s. It seemed that every few years there would be a new Foo Fighters album, and every time it would double as an act of reverence for rock’s lost past.
Medicine at Midnight makes little effort to change from this recurring pattern, but it doesn’t really come with any accompanying grand gestures either: All it offered was the tenuous promise that it would be “kind of like a dance record” with David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers collaboration Let’s Dance as a primary reference point, and even that was based on a single interview rather than a coordinated roll-out strategy. And sure, you can track some of those similarities on the album’s grooviest tracks – lead single ‘Shame Shame’, ‘Cloudspotter’, the title track – but at the end of the day, it should come as no surprise that Medicine at Midnight pulls from its influences in the same vague way that its predecessors did; Wasting Light was no more a garage record than it was an arena-rock record, and very few of the most interesting inspirations behind Sonic Highways seeped into the actual music. But at least both of these albums had enough sprawling ambition or memorable ideas to keep them nominally interesting.
The new album sees the band reuniting with Concrete and Gold producer Greg Kurstin, and you’d expect some of the more personable touches that he brought to that album to carry onto their latest – and they often do – but Medicine at Midnight simply doesn’t break the monotony with as many occasional highlights. ‘Holding Poison’ is a possible exception, a track that offers a glimpse into what the album might have sounded had they fully committed to a concept rather than having to preface it with the obligatory “kind of”. But at least sticking to their formula also leads to some predictably enjoyable moments, like the hardcore-leaning ‘No Son of Mine’ – at least a single spot is always reserved for one of those – which interpolates Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ riff as a tribute to Lemmy. ‘Waiting on a War’ could’ve easily been taken from the band’s 1994 debut, but it manages to deliver the kind of anthemic songwriting that fans have to expect – even if it does so in a way that feels antithetical to the song’s sentiment.
Medicine at Midnight might be the Foos’ most underwhelming album in over a decade, and it certainly doesn’t raise the bar very high, but that still doesn’t make it any less of another solid outing, as impossible to love as it is to hate. Because the band never relied on theatrics or interchangeable guest appearances more than they believed in rock’s basic formula, the music still comes out sounding pretty much the same, only the hit-to-miss ratio is more skewed to the latter this time around. As Grohl sings “Is there more to this than that?” over and over on ‘Waiting on a War’, however, more and more listeners might find themselves pondering that same question.