Ask a random music critic to come up with a shortlist of the best rock songs of the Noughties, and it’s quite unlikely his or her picks will include any offerings by walking Hot Topic billboard AFI. The California quartet (which started as a snotty hardcore outfit before gradually morphing into a goth/punk/emo/alt-rock hybrid obsessed with all things black and somber) is very much a people’s band, one whose increasingly ham-fisted aspirations of seriousness and grandeur is directly proportionate to how many records it sells. Though AFI wishes for its records to be taken as Art, its ambitions have been undercut by a misguided (and frankly adolescent) understanding of what that means, best evidenced by singer Davey Havok’s unabashedly purple lyrics (sample lines from “The Days of the Phoenix”: “The words were mystical as / Purring animals / The circle of rage / The voice on the stage appeared”). Thus, you probably won’t find many AFI tracks on year-end “best-of” critics’ polls
Yes, AFI is pretentious as all hell and Havok comes off as little too in love with the sound of his voice whenever he sings, but nevertheless the group has always had a knack for thrilling, full-throttle rockitude (it’s never a good idea for this band to move at anything slower than a restless clip—witness “Miss Murder”). With the proper focus and the right touch, AFI is indeed capable of greatness—and its magnificent 2003 single “Girl’s Not Grey” is proof of it. Indeed, it’s one of the best the past decade has produced. Seriously. I mean it.
The first single from its major label debut Sing the Sorrow, “Girl’s Not Grey” was the song that introduced AFI to the mainstream. Both longtime fans and the unacquainted could find reason to tune out upon hearing the song or seeing its video (the former dismayed at the group’s steadily-decreasing faithfulness to its hardcore punk roots, the latter taking the quartet as yet another mall-friendly modern rock outfit that prioritized haircuts and piercings over decent songs). Their loss: “Girl’s Not Grey” is an astonishing record—I for one knew I had to buy the album the first time I heard it. Announcing its arrival with Jade Puget’s humongous guitar chords, the track shifts tempos on a dime while ratcheting up the thrills as it races through verses and choruses on its way to a show-stopping conclusion. There’s a lot packed into the song’s smidge-over-three-minute runtime (the group’s signature hardcore chorus chants, a chiming breakdown section backed by Adam Carson’s marching band snare rolls), but all the transitions are seamless, and each section builds upon what has been previously established to make the blood pump even harder.
Certainly some of the credit for the record’s deft pop execution goes to experienced modern rock producers Butch Vig (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage) and Jerry Finn (Green Day, Blink-182), two men who surely know how to balance ear-grabbing hooks and distorted guitars. But it’s not as if the guys in AFI don’t have their shit together. The band is tight, exhibiting a finely-honed group dynamic that came from years of touring the punk circuit. Though Havok is the one who dominates the mix, his full-throttle wailing ensuring even the cheap seats can furrow their brows at his oblique poetry, it’s Puget who really warrants attention on “Girl’s Not Grey” as he deploys thick barre chords, clipped double stops, metallic harmony lines, and his beloved pick scrapes to ensure his parts never bore. The Cure-like interlude following the bounding bridge section is Puget’s spotlight, allowing him to weave tasteful gothy melodies instead of a heroic solo that might tempt a more selfish axeman. When the group slows down the tempo to shift into that surging chorus, the song attains a transcendent quality that can be found in all great pop singles, regardless of whether or not the words (“What follows / Me is the whitest lace of light / What follows / Just begs to be imbued”) make any damn sense.
I’ve definitely faced skepticism every time I’ve proposed “Girl’s Not Grey” as one of the greatest rock songs of the 2000s. And I don’t fault you for sharing that skepticism, especially since AFI seems like its goals these days is to become a suburban-sanctioned Jane’s Addiction. But give the song a listen and push past Havok’s pretentious preening, and maybe you’ll agree in this instance at least, AFI came up with a single that deserves to be widely recognized as a near-perfect piece of pop songcraft.