Welcome to The Singles Chart, a new column where we take a look at the headlining songs from classic LPs and figure out just how they’ve defined our listening experience, ranking each track in the context of the album as a whole. Today’s subject: Foo Fighters’ 1997 classic The Colour and the Shape.
The Singles Chart: Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape
by Chad Jewett
Released in 1997, Foo Fighters’ sophomore album, The Colour and the Shape might just be one of the last great major-label rock records – a smart, impeccably designed collection of songs that bonded top-flight hooks to brawny punk, alt-rock, power-pop and post-hardcore. The album stands as one of very few survivors of an especially dire post-grunge era that, two decades later, has yielded only a handful of classics; in reality, only LPs from Foo Fighters and kindred spirits Weezer still endure. Like Weezer, (“The Blue Album”), something of a sonic and cultural cousin to Colour, the album yielded a trio of iconic singles paired with equally iconic videos and found the band’s central auteur (Dave Grohl) bending his characteristic ideas into fine-tuned pop shapes. The Colour and the Shape is also more influential than it gets credit for – the pop-punk charge of “Monkey Wrench” and the gloomy textures of “Everlong” have indelibly coded themselves onto modern indie and emo DNA, if only because Foo Fighters excelled so mightily at synthesizing complex sounds (Fugazi, The Buzzcocks, Sunny Day Real Estate, Teenage Fanclub) into populist triumphs. Arguably, all four of the album’s singles – “Monkey Wrench”, “Everlong”, “My Hero”, and “Walking After You” – have, to paraphrase another Foo single “stuck around”. The question becomes how.
4.) “My Hero”
Legend has it that “My Hero”, the third single from The Colour was written as a eulogy of sorts for fellow Nirvana member Kurt Cobain, who had committed suicide three years earlier. That specificity didn’t stop the song from being regularly co-opted as mood music for sports arenas and movies like Varsity Blues (the latter of which at least seemed somewhat aware of the irony). If you don’t picture a football lofting through the air in slow motion when hearing “My Hero”, you likely picture the song’s still-compelling video, where-in a man runs in and out of a burning building, rescuing tenants as the Foo Fighters play in one of the smoky rooms. Absent all of that and you still have one of the finer mainstream rock singles of the decade, featuring what might just be Grohl’s signature drum performance as well as a keening, slightly atonal central riff that, more than any other song, reminds you that Foo Fighters were once 50% Sunny Day Real Estate. “My Hero” sounds gargantuan, yet also delicate: there is texture to the many guitars layered in the song’s louder passages, and Grohl’s vocal, breathy and poignant, belies the song’s sheer weight. Think of “My Hero” as the song that establishes Foo Fighters’ gift for matching a certain thoughtfulness to sheer sonic boom.
3.) “Walking After You”
Presaging the delicate, pastoral alt-country of 2005’s underrated In Your Honor, “Walking After You” is as light as “My Hero” is massive. All chiming, silvery acoustic guitars and brushed snare, the song finds Dave Grohl barely exceeding a whisper and indulging a certain kind of impressionist lyricism that never gets enough credit (“Tonight I’m tangled in my blanket of clouds / Dreaming aloud”; “Things just won’t do without you, matter of fact / I’m on your back”). The song’s melody is gorgeous, and its place on an album more defined by the steely churn of “Hey, Johnny Park!” remains striking. Arriving after the unsettled, angular post-punk of “Everlong”, “Walking After You” wafts in like a calming breeze, affectionate and wistful where the preceding song is anxious and frenzied. Most of The Colour and the Shape sounds like a can of soda shaken up till its ready to burst; “Walking After You” trades all of that fizz and pop for an autumnal stillness that has aged beautifully.
2.) “Monkey Wrench”
“Monkey Wrench” might actually be the one facet of the Foos’ sound that has gradually disappeared following The Colour and the Shape. Arguably the best pop-punk song in a year that also brought us “Dammit” and “Nice Guys Finish Last”, “Monkey Wrench” is just about the fastest, and certainly the most giddily sugar-high, that the band would ever get. The song always seems to begin impossibly fast, Grohl’s pogoing, lighting-quick opening riff zipping by quick enough that that big, showy pre-verse pause ends up feeling like a necessary sign-post. Blink and you’d miss it. The whole song seems designed to light up your brain’s pleasure centers like the fish-bowl screen of an arcade game – the ultra-compressed filters that push Dave Grohl’s characteristically tuneful melodies, the sudden stoner-metal pre-chorus interludes, a hook as effortless (and probably meaningless) as “Don’t wanna be your monkey wrench / One more indecent accident” – it’s all flawless power-pop mechanics. And ever the maximalists, the band keeps adding: there’s Grohl’s marathon bridge (“One last thing before I quit…”) that a nation of credulous teens, not yet versed in how multi-track recording works, assumed was done in one take; later the song’s opening riff is added to its final chorus, because it has to be. And there’s subtler stuff too: the “Fall in / fall out” refrain that adds one last layer of catching melody to the last hook, the small minor-key guitar curls that break up the otherwise perfectly major-key verses. The cover of The Colour and the Shape features a stylized graphic of a cluster of atoms, like some 1950’s idea of what science looks like. It’s an apt visual for what “Monkey Wrench” does, which is perfect the nuclear physics of guitar pop.
Last week, David Letterman gave us the last five minutes of his Late Show set to an absolutely stunning performance of “Everlong” – a song the host adored, and which, with its unique mix of melancholy, wistfulness, and bite, was an ideal coda for an entertainer as complicated as Letterman. That alone might assure “Everlong”’s place in the canon, but the song itself is an absolute masterpiece, the best thing Foo Fighters ever wrote. Wafting in on a bewitching haze of guitar, tuned to drop D and straddling a spooky not-quite-major/not-quite-minor ambiance, the song slowly adds layers – a second, then third sharper guitar, an economic bass-snare-hi-hat groove, a grippingly subtle, half-whispered vocal from Grohl. Where “Monkey Wrench” begins at 11 and fights its way to 11.5, “Everlong” takes its time. A first verse ends, but instead of lofting into a chorus, we get more of that whittled, cycling guitar, another ghostly verse. The pre-chorus, muscular and tightly syncopated, recalls some of the re-purposed post-hardcore drama of “My Hero” (“And I wonder when I sing along with you…”), but then “Everlong” seems to interrupt itself with its own brilliant hook (“If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again”), echoing the song’s own central theme of a person trying desperately to make up their mind. It’s a moment that remains one of the best choruses of the decade, a sudden blossoming into bright, ecstatic melody that nevertheless maintains the song’s nagging sense of worry.
Spend some time listening to the way Grohl sings a line like “forever” – with a clarity that belies the near-shouts around it – or find some way to chart just how often “Everlong”’s mind seems to change between some very real darkness (the song’s whispery bridge is legitimately disquieting) and a certain kind of hopefulness. It’s a pop song with a psychological novel’s complexity. The video for “Everlong”, directed by Michel Gondry, underlines the dream-like fogs and super-heroic heights of the track, following a half-awake, half-dreaming Dave Grohl as he attempts to rescue a damsel (played by drummer Taylor Hawkins) from a pair of marauding ghouls (Nate Mendel, Pat Smear). The nightmares (whose uncanny logic works a lot better than Inception for charting how dreams actually operate) go from a punk-attired Grohl at a house show, to an abstract phone, to an Evil Dead-indebted finale in a remote, southern-gothic cabin. Arriving as a serious achievement during a mini-golden age of artsy, inspired videos (Spike Jonze was doing some of his best work at the time), it was nigh impossible to change the channel once one heard the murmur of that first guitar. But “Everlong” really remains the signature song from The Colour and the Shape for the way it both enchants and haunts. Even without its essential visual, the song is captivating. Wondering aloud about if our best days are behind us, Grohl and the band ended up etching our nostalgic attachment to “Everlong” directly into the song. You could ask yourself if anything ever stays gold while listening to a song about whether or not anything can stay gold. Never doubt the crackling smarts that are always sparking just under the surface of The Colour and the Shape.