For anyone who experienced the heyday of Nirvana, it's still surreal that the lanky, string-haired drummer is the guy who'd be on magazine covers and writing #1 rock radio hits 15 years later.
"The band is in the studio now as this reissue is being put together, making what will surely be our finest record, and when we go out to share the great news with the press this time, I'm sure that some journalist will have the temerity to call the band on its serial self-regard, and there's a good chance that journalist will add that, in their opinion, The Colour and the Shape is the band's best, the bastard."
-- Nate Mendel, from the liner notes to the new, expanded edition of The Colour and the Shape
What Mendel neglects to mention in his appropriately cheeky lament regarding the constant fawning over The Colour and the Shape is that for every hundred words that same journalist eventually writes about his band, there will still be a reference to Nirvana. That was my first. Count along!
In all seriousness, for anyone who experienced the heyday of that seminal band, it's still surreal that the lanky, string-haired drummer is the guy who'd be on magazine covers and writing #1 rock radio hits 15 years later. And yet, here we are, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album that made that particular alternate universe a reality. The Colour and the Shape may never be considered any sort of artistic achievement -- the critical respect afforded to OK Computer, Urban Hymns, or Either/Or (all also from '97) seems out of reach -- but there's no denying that it's a damn good rock album.
The greatness of The Colour and the Shape starts, as it should, with the singles. Despite the big chorus of "I'll Stick Around", people weren't exactly sure whether the post-Nirvana Grohl knew how to rock out; one of the trademarks of the eponymous debut was Grohl's strikingly non-aggressive (read: bland) vocal style. It was as if he eased into the songs, letting them take his voice where they may. His voice never dictated the action, it was there to be a voice. That all changed with "Monkey Wrench", whose guitar licks, beats, and melodies are just fine, but whose bridge opened up the world of possibilities that the Foos would soon explore. Sixty-five syllables, almost all of them on the same note but each one a little bit more intense than the last, culminating with a piercing, screamed "I'M FREEEEEE!!!!!"... it was enough to shock nearly everyone who saw Grohl's Fighters as an inconsequential little one-off into paying attention again. And pay attention we did. "My Hero" was tremendous at modern rock radio (not to mention an essential piece of Grohl's coming to terms with his past), and the X-Files remake of Colour's "Walking After You" had a moment or two to shine as well.
Still, it is "Everlong" that the Foo faithful remember and continue to love these ten years later. It's one of those entities that's hard to quantify -- I don't think it's the whimsical video, or Grohl's take on hi-hat-happy drumming (impressive as both are), or even the guitar lines that make "Everlong" such a timeless classic, as much as it's the emotion. "And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again," Grohl sings, invoking the sort of high that comes from perfect, uninterrupted bliss. In a live setting, they're the sort of lyrics that speak toward those nigh-religious experiences that cement bands in their audience's mind. On CD, it speaks to an intimate sort of happiness that everyone can relate to, each in a completely personal, unique way. That those words are set to a killer hook doesn't exactly hurt.
Even beyond "Everlong", it is this same sort of universality that makes the rest of The Colour and the Shape such a repeat-listenable sort of album. It's a relationship album -- Grohl was going through a painful divorce as the band was making the album -- and yet it doesn't come off as lovey, or hokey, or bitter. Each song simply grabs an emotion and holds on for dear life. "My Poor Brain" goes from poppy to screamy in ten seconds flat, perfectly outlining the constant pressure of imminent failure. "Wind Up" and "Enough Space" are tantrums of the highest order, and the utterly gorgeous and patient "February Stars" is simultaneously wistful, sorrowful, and powerful. "Doll" opens the album tentatively, while "New Way Home" is triumphant and upbeat as a closer, the pair of which willfully defy the conventions of "start with a bang, end with a whimper" that defined so many albums of the era.
There was even an air of experimentation in the form of "See You", an upbeat little showtuney thing that Cobain would never have let fly.
So it goes, that even as it's impossible to write about The Colour and the Shape without seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses built by the formidable combination of chart success and fan esteem, it's still surprising just how well the album holds up. The remastering work done for this reissue simply pops without redefining the songs it's been applied to; it's always been an easy album to bounce around to, and that holds true even more now. And there are bonus tracks! As bonus tracks, they're pretty fantastic (even if the collectors will cringe at their precious import singles being rendered useless), even if they don't add much to the album. It may be a bit difficult to resolve the mellow vocal take on Killing Joke's "Requiem" that Grohl provides, but the version of Prince's "Drive Me Wild" that shows up here is an energetic trip, mitigating that other misstep. And really, it's fun to hear the thrashy little ditty that gave "The Colour and the Shape" its name, even as it was left on the cutting room floor.
There is a perfect little treasure to be found amongst the extras: "Dear Lover", once a B-side of "My Hero" and soundtrack reject, turns out to be a perfectly poignant little thing that never gets as melodramatic as, say, "Walking After You". Really, it's the quiet, reflective side of "Everlong" and the aftermath of the events that inspired the album; "Now I know the way true love should be," Grohl sings with a sort of contented sorrow, as the rest of his life opens up and the painful memories start to fade. Granted, the fake ending is probably unnecessary, but it is a B-side after all.
Yet, while those extra tracks might inspire a purchase or three, hearing The Colour and the Shape again isn't about hearing what's different or new, it's about hearing an album that brings the memories rushing back, it's about hearing the true beginning of an artist's self-realization and development. Where once he was defined by his past, The Colour and the Shape ensured that he would, from this point on, be defined by his present. This is where Dave Grohl made himself known to a generation that couldn't have given two flips about Nirvana; this is where Grohl re-endeared himself to a generation that had shut itself off to his musings as they declared them predeterminedly inferior to what had come before. They say everything happens for a reason. Well, I would never wish the pain of divorce on anyone, but it's that very pain (along with all of the other emotions involved in such a tumultuous time) that may well have turned The Colour and the Shape into what it is.
It really is a great album, one that the Foo Fighters continue to wear as a badge and a curse, knowing that in our hearts, they may never live up to it. And that's okay.