Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape couldn’t have arrived at a better time, even if that timing is entirely coincidental. With Pearl Jam in musical transition, Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees in musical and personal flux, and Soundgarden suddenly, sadly defunct, the fabric of grunge has seriously unraveled. Weary of Seattle’s tormented wail, the public has flocked to Jewel, the Wallflowers, and other proponents of the New Sincerity folk rock — comfy, familiar homilies in fresh packaging. But alt-rock still needs an Angry Tortured Man, and the Foos’ genial leader Dave Grohl, of all people, is ready to inherit the windbag.
It’s not the first time Grohl has surprised us. His role as Nirvana’s slacker-next-door drummer did nothing to prepare us for Foo Fighters’ 1995 debut, which found the previously silent Grohl singing and writing cathartic pop while playing 99 percent of the instruments himself. No longer the underdog, Grohl now leads a successful, platinum-level band, and The Colour and the Shape is even more ambitious than its predecessor. (And we don’t mean the pretentious title, which sounds like a Donovan reject.)
The Colour and the Shape is, lo and behold, a concept album — a loose-knit collection of songs that trace, in more straightforward language than standard alt-rock ellipticism, the start and finish of a relationship. (Coincidentally, Grohl’s marriage recently ended.) The first two tracks, ”Doll” and ”Monkey Wrench,” reflect, with equal parts wistfulness, anger, and resignation, on a gone-dead affair. Grohl then winds his way through the story, as if trying to come to terms with it. He raises questions about faithfulness and motives in ”Hey, Johnny Park” and ”My Poor Brain,” then unleashes a torrent of bile in ”Wind Up.” With ”Up in Arms,” the couple has reached a wary reconciliation (”I was the one who left you/Always coming back”), followed by another breach of faith (”February Star”). By the last track, ”New Way Home,” Grohl, dazed and somewhat confused, thinks it’s over but admits, ”I’m not scared.”
Working with producer Gil Norton, Foo Fighters pump up their own volume to match Grohl’s sweep. The band heard on The Colour and the Shape is not a ragtag slacker unit but a bunch of confident, powerful pros — brawny, metallic, able to shift gears and tempos on a dime. Led by the battering-ram guitars of Grohl and Pat Smear, onslaughts like ”Everlong” and ”Hey, Johnny Park” furiously pound out their message — Dinosaur Jr with a bigger brain. When Grohl lets loose a burly snarl in the speed-punky ”Monkey Wrench,” he morphs into James Hetfield before our ears. In fact, the album often feels like the new-wave metal Metallica should have but didn’t concoct with Load.
Foo Fighters’ growth is clearly evident throughout The Colour and the Shape, but it isn’t always a pretty sight or sound. The songs, arranged in the patented whisper-to-a-screed style of Nirvana and Hole, match the intensity of Grohl’s sentiments; they’re slow burns that erupt into rage. Save a few numbers, like the sarcastic skiffle of ”See You,” the Foos can’t resist cranking it to 11 halfway through nearly every song. The effect can be liberating, but just as often it becomes numbing — been there, grunged that, like much current alt-rock.
Grohl hasn’t yet come into his own as a singer, but his voice is more assured, moving from the mumbled nuances of ”Doll” to the ravaged roar of ”Enough Space.” As with the music, however, his spew grows exhausting — and occasionally unnerving. The tightly coiled ”Wind Up” is hurt by startlingly violent imagery like ”I have a choice between the bat and the belt/Each time I hear about the hand you’ve been dealt.” Once again, it’s easy to applaud Grohl for his ongoing creative growth; drummers have suffered far worse fates than his. But as energizing as it can be, The Colour and the Shape also demonstrates that breaking up is still extremely hard to do. B