I hate starting a post with “In the history of popular music . . . “ So pompous, so banal.
So, let me say instead that in listening to thousands of albums in the context of their times, I especially love albums that are albums of creative release: a moment where the artist steps out of whatever shadows have dogged them and astonishes the listening public far beyond its limited expectations. Coltrane’s Giant Steps is the classic example, but rock ‘n’ roll has quite a few as well.
One is the subject of today’s essay, The Colour and the Shape. In this case, I think Dave Grohl faced a very difficult challenge. He not only had to escape the iconic status of Nirvana with their millions of dogmatic grunge followers, but the long shadows of the movement’s dead hero, Kurt Cobain. He also had to overcome the stigma of being “just the drummer,” as there is definitely a stereotype in rock that drummers are weird, antisocial creatures incapable of doing much except banging skin (Ringo is clearly the exception to “antisocial”; Keith Moon is a more enduring archetype). The most successful crossover drummer was probably Phil Collins, who was so much better behind the kit backing up Peter Gabriel.
So, what to do? Grohl produced and distributed Foo Fighters, one of the few albums I would describe as “shy.” Grohl pretty much did all the work himself, hid his identity, passed along the tapes to a few friends, and was discovered by Capitol Records, no doubt motivated to cash in on grieving Nirvana fans. It’s a nice album, appropriately grungy and low-fi, with a few surprises here and there . . . but it’s tentative, as if Grohl is still fishing for his confidence.
Now with a real band in tow, he started working on The Colour and the Shape. After the first recordings were complete, Grohl took them into the studio and decided to re-record the lot. The primary problem was the drumming, so he semi-fired the drummer. Lucky for him, he knew a great drummer: Dave Grohl! This decision (as much as Grohl regrets his termination procedure) is the one that made The Colour and the Shape, for it was his “Steve Jobs Moment.” Nothing was going to get in the way of his creative vision.
The opening sequence, with the soft and subtly intricate “Doll” exploding into the ultimate take-no-prisoners song, “Monkey Wrench” is a loud message that Dave ain’t shittin’ around anymore. That long “One more thing before I quit” shout in the closing moments of “Monkey Wrench” always makes me shiver with delight—the delight at hearing an artist just let it fucking go! You barely have time to catch your breath before the drums burst into “Hey, Johnny Park,” with its alternating oomph and restraint. The pattern of diversity is matched in “My Poor Brain,” then we return to out-and-out heavy in “Wind Up.” At this point, we get one very clear message: The Colour and the Shape is going to be a recording of unflagging energy.
Grohl plays with this expectation, softening the first verse in “Up in Arms” and then turning it into a great pop driver that stays in your head for days. Then he shifts gears into the majestic “My Hero,” which moronic Nirvana fans believed was a tribute to Kurt Cobain. Read the fucking lyrics, people! Do you really think Dave Grohl would describe Kurt Cobain as “ordinary?” No, folks, this song is a passionate recognition of the fact that the people who truly influence our lives are often everyday people.
Needing something light and playful after “My Hero,” we have the Foo Fighters-like tune, “See You,” which certainly lightens the mood a bit with its playful bounce. “Enough Space” gets back to grungy rock, and while the song isn’t the best on the album, its intensity prepares us for the much deeper opus, “February Stars,” a song that never fails to knock me on my ass. The slow, wistful opening leading to the almost symphonic structure of the second half creates incredible drama and tension. Thank God they didn’t use a real orchestra, for this song’s structure almost seems to demand it. Far better to express the emotions with raw, strongly-strummed chords than get too clever and ruin the human emotion of the song.
Whew! After “February Stars,” you think, “Well, the rest has to be filler.” I mean, what’s left? Well, what’s left is one of the greatest love songs ever written, for starters.
The popularity of “Everlong” does not diminish its power anymore than popularity diminished “Hey, Jude.” This is one of the most perfect songs ever written, and one that breaks every stereotype of what a love song should be. I’ve always wondered why most love songs are soft and sappy. Shit, I don’t feel that way when I’m in love! I have passion! Desires! Hormones! “Everlong” is the love song for real, living, breathing human beings who want to take love to the max, as in “The only thing I ever ask of you: you’ve got to promise not to stop when I say when.” That’s not just a physical wish, it’s an emotional wish to help someone get past that fear of vulnerability we all face when faced with potential intimacy.
“Everlong” also reveals the wisdom of Grohl’s decision to take over on drums. This is one of the top two or three drum parts ever recorded, for it perfectly expresses the intensity and unexpected turns of human passion. The video, by the way, is an absolute hoot (more about the videos in a minute).
Now we relax a bit . . . “Walking After You” is like a sweet-scented warm blanket, despite its message of separation. But if you think Dave’s done surprising us, you are so fucking wrong. “My Way Home” is one of the most overlooked pieces in the Foo Fighter catalog, full of melodic and rhythmic twists, loud and soft, highs and lows. Its innate spontaneity is the perfect way to end one of the most joyful expressions of artistic freedom in rock history.
It’s impossible to end the discussion of this wonderful work of rock art without mentioning the videos. Foo Fighter videos from their first three albums were brilliantly humorous and pleasantly self-deprecating. They were a reminder that Dave Grohl never took himself too seriously, despite his growing musical stature. That all started to change with One by One and the shift to stadium-pleasing Grammy-winning crapola.
This leaves us with two consolation prizes: the band’s support for President Obama against the Blue Meanies who want to control my fucking vagina and The Colour and the Shape. As music is more enduring and meaningful than politics, I’ll take the latter.