Dave Grohl, leader of Foo Fighters and former drummer with Nirvana, has a reputation as “the nicest man in rock”. It is a compliment — but in years past it would have been an insult. Rock stars were not supposed to be nice. It was a forbidden habit, a virtue to be indulged in private. The Nice — by which I mean the prog band banned from Royal Albert Hall in 1968 for burning a US flag during a show — rocked. Being nice did not.
Grohl has tried to disown the tag, but in such an amiable way as to inadvertently reinforce it. “I’ve met a lot of other musicians that are much more kind and generous than I am,” he told Planet Rock radio last year. The term “aw-shucks” may not be among his many tattoos, but it is written all over him. He is rock’s Jimmy Stewart, an epitome of decency. In an age that is no longer prepared to romanticise rock stars behaving indecently, the attribute has become an asset. Niceness is the key to Grohl’s longevity.
Last year marked Foo Fighters’ 25th anniversary. Grohl formed the band after Nirvana came to a violent end with Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Initially dismissed as the vehicle for a drummer’s fantasies of being a guitar-playing lead vocalist, the cosily nicknamed Foos have outlasted their peers. They are one of the few 1990s acts still releasing chart-topping albums and filling stadiums. But their solid, decent qualities are ill-suited to the stylistic shift that they attempt on Medicine at Midnight.
Grohl refers to it as “our Saturday night party album”. It was supposed to come out last year, the prelude to an 18-month world tour marking the band’s quadranscentennial. But the pandemic has caused the tour to be cancelled and the record to be delayed. It now arrives in a world where Saturday night parties get broken up by the police. Its difficulties go beyond unlucky timing, however.
The songs incorporate a new direction into the usual singalong hard-rock. There are stuttering drumbeats and stop-start riffs, higher-pitched vocals and funk-rock basslines. The aim is to create a swaggering, dark kind of groove, but without allowing the swagger and darkness to become oppressive. It’s a balancing act perfected by Queens of the Stone Age, a band with which Grohl has a close association. But it proves to be a mis-step for Foo Fighters.
Like the “guillotine queen” who swings “from the left to the right” in “Cloudspotter”, the album has been assembled in a muddled fashion. “Shame Shame” opens atmospherically with tensely plucked strings and an insinuating rhythm as an uncharacteristically predatory Grohl threatens to be “the tongue that will swallow you”. But then the song reverts to boilerplate arena rock as though losing faith in itself.
The title track finds Grohl “dancing hard under the dead moon, howling with you” over an irresolute mash-up of Bowie-esque funk and classic rock: there is no shaman’s magic here. In “Making a Fire”, backing gospel singers and stadium rock choruses overwhelm what could have been a lithe hard-rock number. Big orchestral ballad “Waiting on a War” provides a rare moment of coherence and power. Tellingly, it places the nicest man in rock back in his musical comfort zone.
‘Medicine at Midnight’ is released by Roswell Records/RCA