Foo Fighters 1997
Photo: Michael Lavine / Courtesy of Roswell/Capitol Records

‘The Colour and the Shape’ Found Foo Fighters’ Peaking in Their Adolescence

Conceived under fraught circumstances and rife with youthful passion, Foo Fighters’ most cherished album, The Colour and the Shape, is also a relic, never to be replicated.

The Colour and the Shape
Foo Fighters
Roswell / Capitol
20 May 1997

Foo Fighters have been an American rock institution long enough for us to forget when Dave Grohl was known primarily as a casualty of one of music history’s most impactful tragedies. Today, Foo Fighters dependably sell out arenas, tour the world in luxury, make movies that aren’t just biographical nor promotional, and enjoy the comfort that comes from serving as a generator currently keeping a long-tired genre from total obsolescence. These days a new Foo Fighters record is essentially a guarantee of consistency, but 25 years ago, Grohl’s future was as unformed as the act that would form the baseline of rock music in the current decade.

The Colour and the Shape remains Foo Fighters’ most cherished record, a passionate high not only in the band’s largely-temperate discography but among all releases directly following Nevermind’s unforeseen success. Like Nevermind, it prioritizes pop melodies in a rock context and, thanks to producer Gil Norton, bears spit-shined digital production that encases it in amber. The nonsensical lyricism of its predecessor gives way to a more intimate, if still shallow, approach. Its highs Grohl likely won’t ever supersede.

For a while, many considered the record the band’s arrival. Taylor Hawkins’ death changes things. The loss of his presence punctuates the fact that he represents Foo Fighters almost as much as Grohl himself. It’s not just his drumming; it’s his role in allowing Grohl to finally conceive of Foo Fighters as an act separate from himself.

Grohl’s recent memoir, The Storyteller, contains torrents of words on the effect Hawkins imbued on him as a performer, including the initial sense of brotherhood that fostered an equivalent camaraderie throughout his band. An entire chapter is devoted to the making of 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose, a record that, in retrospect, represents the true arrival of the arena-packing Foo Fighters we know today. Having purchased a house in Virginia and free of contractual obligations, the band spent easy days enjoying the recording process to its fullest, bonding over good food and warm springtime nights. The process allowed Grohl to decontextualize Foo Fighters not as a response to stalling career momentum or the stress of label pressure but as a living, self-sustaining entity that would carry Grohl and the band into the twenty-first century as comfortable careerists.

Contrastively, Grohl makes almost no mention of The Colour and the Shape, a record intended to separate Foo Fighters from its solo origins. Its gestation, it seems, is not as readily able to be mythologized. He includes a tossed-off mention of its fraught recording process in the book and briefly acknowledges its enduring popularity, but little else otherwise. His reticence in covering that friction is emblematic of the memoir’s most significant problem, but it does reinforce what the record represents in the band’s history: its adolescence.

Adolescence is when we usually discover who we are through the embarrassment of trial and error. We walk the paths we deem most interesting and stumble over our feet; we try our best not to make mistakes and make them anyway. We take the verve of our childhood and use it to sculpt an approximate image of our future selves without quite knowing what we want them to look like. Compare that to the growing pains Grohl and his band endured during the record’s creation. The lineup he constructed in response to his well-received debut record failed to match his lofty standards. A series of sessions at Washington’s Bear Creek Studios had resulted in unsatisfactory takes, and drummer William Goldsmith bore the brunt of that failure. Meanwhile, Grohl himself was suffering through the last anxious vestiges of his early adulthood, his marriage to actress Jennifer Youngblood in the process of unraveling.

Faced with self-imposed artistic pressure and unsteadied by the turbulence of his circumstances, Grohl committed the most significant transgression of the band’s history. After moving studios from Washington to Los Angeles, he rerecorded Goldsmith’s drum parts from the Bear Creek sessions to achieve the sound he was after. He did so without Goldsmith’s consent. In response, Goldsmith lashed out and then left, leaving Grohl with the lingering shame of having cheated himself out of his intention to transition Foo Fighters from a solo act to a band effort. A trial had led to an error large enough for Grohl to redraw and eventually attain what he wanted out of his band.

The Colour and the Shape is too well-formed to be a teenager in aural form, but its vigorous energy and sense of unabashed romance feel tied to adolescence from more than just a conceptual stance. Most of its songs illustrate a top-heavy desire borne from youth, where the capacity to experience desire overwhelms the basis to contain it emotionally. Norton urged Grohl to ditch the surreal gibberish littering his debut and focus more on concrete subjects, which inherently makes for better pop songs. His obstinance forced Grohl to pull frequently from the decay of his marriage, and it resulted in several tracks about the workings of a long-term relationship but coded in the embryonic language of young love.

That language comes up lyrically but feels even more tied up in composition. “Monkey Wrench’s” narrator might be mature enough for their locus of control to be internal, but the song’s high-pressure angst and explosive releases suggest a younger state of mind. In its climax, “February Stars” surges with the romantic ardor of fantasy, like a private fabricated reality looped repeatedly to justify and quell the burn of unrequited desire. “Up in Arms” revolves around a violent mood switch, as does “My Poor Brain” and its dynamic fluctuations. “See You” bounces with the innocence of puppy love, while the relaxed, summery atmosphere of “Walking After You” belies the sticky urgency of infatuation.

Something unplaceable imbues the songs with a spirit that’s irresistible to the young mind, which is why the record’s made such an impact over the years. Grohl may have been writing about the complications of his years-long marriage, but the language he writes in, and the music that couches it, conveys a sweet purity that’s easy to feel with a heart unscarred in the journey to adulthood. Other Foo Fighters records may carry the remnants of its creation, like the humid warmth embedded in There Is Nothing Left to Lose or the maximalist garage-based noise of Wasting Light. However, The Colour and the Shape uniquely transcends its origins by incarnating a genuine, unfiltered passion.

Passion is the record’s secret weapon and the main reason why it represents a post-grunge outlier. America encountered post-grunge without really desiring it; the term’s prefix, like radioactive fallout from an atom bomb, insinuates a mechanical response to a landscape-changing phenomenon. As the industry rushed to find “the next Nirvana”, they supplied the country with a few years of suffering over Bush and Candlebox, bands of a warped machismo that falsely interpreted genuine pain for prattling, deadened self-seriousness.

It was always a low bar to clear, but The Colour and the Shape momentarily envisioned a future for the genre outside of cold commercial aspirations, and it did it in one song. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly, “Everlong” works so well. But Norton’s production jumps out immediately – the guitars are rough but gleam like mirrors, the bass hits the gut, and even though the drums race along at a pounding pulse they don’t overwhelm. In a storied career of productions, it might be his crowning achievement. That’s not to discount Grohl’s arrangement, a flawless combination of build-up and release with his finest one-two punch between pre-chorus and chorus. Each ends a measure early and refuses to ease up on tension, especially when the first chorus dives back into the verse. If Foo Fighters have long been lambasted for tepidity, “Everlong”, is a rare moment that sees them firing on all cylinders.

When people used to criticize post-grunge, they often interpreted its lack of abrasiveness as compensation for its commercial prospects. While “Everlong’s” cracks are completely smoothed out, the track works because at its heart lay a raw, innocent sentiment – the kind untampered by masculine insecurity or self-loathing. That, more than its radio-friendly sheen, is what survives. We’re in an era where compromise is a necessity, and the endurance of that attitude makes those old complaints feel quaint in retrospect.

It’s understandable why Grohl is less than enthusiastic about looking back at The Colour and the Shape. It’s hard for anyone to look back on their transformative years without either overvaluing them or cringing. What’s more apparent than ever is that, regardless of how he feels about it, the album represents a relic: a version of Foo Fighters that stopped existing when Taylor Hawkins joined the band. The camaraderie that would build among Grohl and his bandmates would leave all that tumult in the rearview, allowing a fraught solo project to morph into a comfortable act familiar to millions. Yet all the distance in the world can’t hide the fact that the tension surrounding The Colour and the Shape – when the hunger to succeed subsumed all else – makes it a formidable peak unable for Grohl to rescale.