Like a lot of people, I was saddened a few weeks ago by the death of Norm MacDonald, who I consider to be possibly the funniest guy who ever lived. One of the things I appreciated about Norm was how, in an era with a lot of “smart” comics who fancy themselves as philosophers, he was very willing to play the idiot. Some of Norm’s most iconic clips are him just acting like a goofball around people who are trying to be serious, and I often came away thinking he had just outsmarted all the people he was talking to, even as they were trying to appear intelligent and he was cracking stupid jokes. Norm really was the smartest guy in the room, in part because he didn’t care about revealing it to others.
I get some similar vibes from Colleen Green, who just released Cool, her first album since 2015’s I Want to Grow Up. I was obsessed with that album on a couple different levels: emotionally, I related strongly to the lyrics, and analytically I was fascinated with its weird kind of unassuming greatness. In a lot of ways, the album broke convention from the type of stuff I normally hype up: it was not even remotely subtle, it didn’t have a lot of creativity or ambition, and I doubt even Green herself would claim to be a particularly virtuosic musician who makes sounds you’ve never heard before. This made it an easy album for a lot of listeners to dismiss after one or two listens, and because Green presents herself in a somewhat frivolous manner (the jokes and stoner girl imagery), it never got much in the way of critical praise.
But I argued (and still do) that Green is a lot smarter than she gets credit for. She knows her own limitations and within those boundaries makes songs that are consistently fun to listen to and affecting while having the musical equivalent of character development. Her direct, unpretentious approach works largely because of her unflinching honesty. Of course, the majority of artists are honest, but there’s a difference between what I think of as “convenient honesty” and what Green does. Most will reveal themselves through art, but only the parts that still make them seem sympathetic, wise, or good. Green is very willing to sing about foibles that don’t necessarily paint her in a positive light to some listeners, which is both realer and a lot more brave. When I listened to “Deeper Than Love,” I had no doubt those were her real feelings, because why would anyone make that up?
I Want to Grow Up paired that brutal honesty with mostly straight-forward, loud guitar rock, creating an experience that was like being pummeled over and over again by reality, but in a way that was weirdly enjoyable. On Cool, Green has matured somewhat; there’s more of a variety of sounds and moods, which makes the album a little less directly impactful. The atmospheric “Highway” uses a synth and Green’s near-spoken delivery to replicate a night drive — Green says she prefers the scenic route, which I suspect is a metaphor for the ambling pace she lives her life at. The most adventurous track is “Natural Chorus,” which is pretty much Colleen Green does Stereolab. Most of the song is a simple motorik groove, and it’s another point where she shows a willingness to create more subtle moods with sound, along with the long opening riff on “Someone Else” and a closing guitar instrumental, the questionably-titled “Pressure to Cum.”
Those songs add some textures to the album, but Green is still most in her element when she’s making simple guitar pop that shows her personality. “You Don’t Exist” is a relentlessly catchy tune where she “calls bullshit” on social media, and “It’s Nice to Be Nice” has her reminding herself to be kinder to others (“it’s nice to be nice, it’s good to be good”) and reap the rewards. In typical form, this isn’t the most groundbreaking material, but Green presents it in a refreshing way. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, like she is the teacher instructing her listener students — she’s just exploring her own feelings in a way that is always direct and unpretentious, with a mix of seriousness and humor. Even as she explores new styles and matures, her ability to do that is what makes Green one of my favorite songwriters to listen to.