Highly compressed and crushingly loud, Songs for the Deaf works as both an arty hard rock masterpiece and as a hilarious, wonderful satire on the disappearing dynamics in modern-day records. The album is presented as a radio broadcast from multiple Southern California stations as a driver journeys from Los Angeles to the desert in the east, with fake disc jockeys checking in every few songs to give funny introductions. I’ll say right up front that I’d put Songs for the Deaf up there with the very best of what the 2000s had to offer, which, as I’m learning more and more every day, was considerable. I have some memory of this record being a critical hit at the time of its release, but what got Songs for the Deaf the most press, at least initially, was the presence of Dave Grohl on the drums.
For those not in the know, former Nirvana drummer Grohl played the drums on 1995’s Foo Fighters — he played all of the instruments himself, actually — and on 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, Grohl infamously re-recorded over William Goldsmith’s original takes because he was unhappy with them, leading Goldsmith to quit the band. (Poor guy.) This is his first outing, however, as a hired hand in the studio and, thankfully, he isn’t a ringer showing up to sandbag inferior company, as not only are the Queens a talented bunch, but the little-known-but-equally-praised guitarist of Ween, Dean Ween, appears on a few tracks, as well. Grohl was lured from his duties as frontman of the Foo Fighters because the Foos were going through a difficult period.
Having just spent a million dollars to record a version of One by One nobody was happy with, Grohl was frustrated that his band mates were taking the Foo Fighters for granted. So he went and played drums for Queens of the Stone Age on Songs for the Deaf and its resulting tour, reconvening with the rest of the Foo Fighters at his house in Virginia in the spring of 2002 to re-record the existing tracks and record new songs — the popular “Times Like These” was one of them — during a two-week period. I actually bought Songs for the Deaf on CD almost ten years ago, when I heard the excellent hit single “No One Knows” on alternative rock radio… and I never got into it. In fact, a few years later I traded it in because I had never really listened to it and figured I never would.
Basically, I was too young for it; I didn’t get the jokes, and I just thought the music was weird. And of all the CDs I ever traded in (which isn’t that many, because by the time I got around to looking into trading some in, they were almost worthless… not to mention the store went out of business — the two go hand in hand, I suppose), this is the only one I’ve actually regretted. Because this is the only album I have ever spent money on twice. That’s right. I bought this damn thing twice. I held out on buying it the second time for about three or four years, because in principle, I was against doing it, you know? But I never could get my hands on a library copy, so I eventually pulled the trigger on iTunes. The first thing I noticed was that the album led off with a different song, “The Real Song for the Deaf.” Here’s the scoop on that: on the CD version of the album, it’s a true secret song, programmed to be, effectively, track zero. (I’ll let you try to process that for a second.)
For those of you too young to remember CD players, frequently when you bought a CD there would be (most often non-music) material between tracks, which in the iTunes age, is simply added to the end of the previous song when you rip a CD onto your computer. But what if there is no previous song, like in this case? It means if you ripped the CD version of Songs for the Deaf onto your computer, you’re missing this song. (Not that you’re missing much. It’s just a joke that’s, if I’m not mistaken, a play on “Speak to Me” from Dark Side of the Moon — it has a similar heartbeat intro.) Basically, the only way you could hear it is if you started the first song and then hit rewind. Anyway, on the iTunes version of the album, the first track is “The Real Song for the Deaf.” Also of note is that the last track, “Mosquito Song,” is listed as a hidden track, despite being included on the CD packaging and labeled as such. (Another joke, I suppose.)
As a set of songs, Songs for the Deaf is just about unbeatable compared to the rest of what their peers — be it hard rock, alternative rock, or any kind of rock, for that matter — had to offer at the dawn of the new millennium. The only weak track — the so-noisy-it’s-unholy “Six Shooter” — isn’t really a song at all. It’s a joke track, and a funny one at that. Once I actually understood that so much of this is just meant in jest, I’ve come to appreciate this album a great deal. In fact, it’s sort of disappointing that Dave Grohl didn’t channel some of this energy into his own band, as One by One has always sounded kind of flat to me. The prime example: the dull, thudding “All My Life,” One by One‘s lead single and one of the band’s most popular songs. I don’t even want to imagine what the million-dollar version sounded like.
I suppose this discussion wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t discuss the subject of dynamic range, since it’s such an integral component to this album in particular. Most albums these days are very poorly mastered, leading them to sound compressed/squashed. It’s really a shame. However, in the case of Songs for the Deaf, this is actually intentional, and proves this can be a valid artistic choice. Granted, given the satirical, jokey nature of Songs for the Deaf, this choice is easier to accept here than in instances where the music is being played straight, but I can point to some works where a more compressed aesthetic has been chosen and actually works really well. The Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006) and the White Stripes’ Elephant (2003) are good examples, since the compression emphasizes the sloppy, unpolished feel. (It’s like listening to a band play in your garage… hence why both bands fit in the garage rock genre.)
In general, yes, a compressed dynamic range is a very bad thing, particularly when so much work has gone into the production, but it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of more lo-fi records actually opt for this aesthetic.