What a tragedy it would’ve been if Foo Fighters broke up before their big hit.
Despite the album cover showcasing connection, The Colour and the Shape is actually shrouded in breakups, one inside the band and one outside the band. Two members of the band had left, one before and one after the album was made. On top of that, frontman Dave Grohl was going through a divorce. It seemed like just as Grohl was rebuilding his life after Nirvana, the tower was about to collapse. But like most classic albums, adversity brings excellence.
The Colour and the Shape is celebrating its 20th anniversary today as a friendly reminder of how Grohl and co. somehow manage to pull themselves out from under the worst situations. Leading up to the album, things seemed to be snowballing to a success. After the indie breakout success of their 1995 self-titled debut album, Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel, guitarist Pat Smear, and drummer William Goldsmith entered the studio with longtime Pixies producer Gil Norton to make the band’s first official album (Foo Fighters was written and performed entirely by Grohl). However, when the band started recording the album in late 1996, Goldsmith was not up to the drumming snuff of Grohl. As a result, the band re-recorded the songs with Grohl playing the drums. Even after the band finished the album, they suffered another departure when Smear quit the band due to exhaustion.
Despite all of that drama, there’s no denying The Colour and the Shape and its sonic punch. Stuff like “Monkey Wrench,” “Hey, Johnny Park!” and “My Hero” rumble through the eardrums like a thunderstorm, thanks to Grohl’s hard-hitting drums and the sharp riffs of Smear.
Maybe because Grohl is such a skilled musician that he understands how the drums and guitar should interplay with each other, almost playing on top of each other. Smear is also a master of using his loud playing to punch through songs like “Requiem,” not as a distraction but as a booster. You can hear him starting off the chaos of “Wind Up” and “My Poor Brain” and bringing it all back together in a tight knit jam. And then there are the slower moments, where the band brings up the romantic elements through low-key ballads like “New Way Home,” “Doll,” and “February Stars.” People started noting the Foos ballad chops eight years later on the double album In Your Honor, but here it’s interspersed throughout the album well.
It also fits the subject matter. Right from the opener “Doll,” it’s establish Grohl and his partners are in for a rough ride (“You know in all of the time that we’ve shared/I’ve never been so scared/Doll me up in my bad luck/I’ll meet you there”) From there, the band deals with adversity (“Now and then I’ll try to bend/Under pressure wind up snapping in the end”), the breaking of tension (“This is a blackout/Don’t let it go to waste/This is a blackout/I want to detonate”), the acceptance of failure and the time to move on (“If you could manage me/I’ll try to manage you/But lately it’s all I ever do”).
The Colour and the Shape is a very personal album for the band, like on “Hey, Johnny Park!” where they try desperately to keep any sense of accomplishment for themselves (“Now that I’ve found my reward/I’d throw it away long before/I’d share a piece of mine with you”). That doesn’t mean they’re not victim to old love or old demons, as heard on “See You” (“These steps I take don’t get me anywhere/I’m getting further from myself/One thing is always true/How good it is to see you”). At the end of the day, the album seems to be about acceptance and taking stock of one’s situation. Take “My Hero,” an anthem for the everyman disguised as a kiss off to idol worship (“Don’t the best of them bleed it out/While the rest of them peter out”). When Grohl shouts the end of the chorus, “He’s ordinary,” it’s like he begging for that hero to relay onto him.
And of course there’s “Everlong,” the song that starts hopeful and ends with a terrible truth. At the start, Grohl would do anything to hold on to the seconds he has, almost to the point of desperation. Again, right at the last shout of the end of the chorus, Grohl sounds like he’s come to a conclusion about his life. The beginning was something exciting, but now he knows something else is ending.
It’s a fitting parable for Foo Fighters, as The Colour and the Shape was the Foos further stepping into the limelight. Their concert attendance grew, their radio and MTV airplay increased, and their identity became clearer. Grohl knew his band could manage a balance of interpersonal lyrics with loud riffs and breakneck energy. It moved beyond grunge, and even a bit away from alternative rock, to being an evolution of modern rock music. It showed Dave Grohl figuring out where his next musical trajectory was going to be, even after leaving so much behind.