One question that looms over every new record from any given band is: Will this be any good? But Weezer’s gotten to a weird point in their career. For years now they’ve been releasing albums that are more disappointing than anything else. So when a new record comes out, they’re faced with more vigilant criteria than what most other bands deal with. Most bands know people at the party are whispering about whether or not their albums are any good. Weezer has it shouted with megaphones. What’s worse is that most people would now answer, out of routine, “Of course it isn’t!” Now, that’s not an accurate answer at all when it comes to their new record. But more on that later.
What makes the Weezer pill difficult to swallow, of course, is that they used to be good. Their first self-titled album (known to most as, of course, The Blue Album) was the perfect pop-rock lexicon. Everybody knew it then. They still do now. Every song has riffs you’re probably still humming twenty something years later and, perhaps more importantly, their silly geek-rock schtick had real, earnest emotion behind it. Sure “Undone (The Sweater Song)” isn’t going to usher anyone through a dark night of the soul but I’d wager “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Only In Dreams” can and have. What’s more, they do so in a way that both lifts you up and sympathizes when you’re down. They work for when you’re partying and when you’re not invited to the party. They’re the rare happy/sad songs you’ve really got to fight to find.
Then, of course, there was Pinkerton. If the former had its moments of emotional catharsis, this is the nineties emo record par excellence. Every ascendant riff is matched with wry self-loathing. But this is only with the benefit of hindsight. Cuomo’s hyper-confessional writing style here was considered too creepy on its release and is respected only in retrospect. It’s a record about being awkward in social/ethical/emotional scenarios at progressive levels of discomfort, and it’s easier to admit you relate to something like that when it’s nostalgic and removed. If it came out this year, it’d probably get the same disregarding treatment from fans and critics.
Hence, their derailment. The Blue Album is all pop hooks and occasional melancholy lyricism, and it made Cuomo and company unlikely rock stars. Then Pinkerton makes Cuomo, in particular, look like an oversharer and a creep. This leads Cuomo to overcompensate by altering the equation that made The Blue Album so good: pop hooks + jokes + realistic humanity = great pop record. The equation would become pop hooks + jokes – realistic humanity = mediocre to just bad pop record.
He’d made being a geek cool, but only a very certain kind of geek: the one who could make reference to pop culture with wit and joke about himself and life in general while remaining sanitized. He broke into the mainstream for his pop hooks and almost left it when he got too real. You can be a geek, but not the sort of geek that’ll get picked on if you want your music to keep raking in cash. Don’t be too relatable in your failings because then we may end up relating a little too much. Less “I’m drifting further from you everyday
Driving by your place every night” (The Green Album‘s “Girlfriend”). More “Buddy Holly” please.
So begins the litany of near-hits and utter misfires that characterize the rest of Weezer’s career. The Green Album scores them a megahit with “Island in the Sun,” and this cements how they don’t need humanity or realism in their music, just riffs catchy enough to pay for luxuries aplenty. Nevertheless, “Island in the Sun” is also the first Weezer single completely devoid of any edge whatsoever, and they’d spend the next decade or so trying to sand off their edge even further.
“Beverly Hills” should be all the proof you need, but if you need more, please consider the fact they released an album so keen on tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of the time that it was named after Lost‘s Hurley and featured his face alone on the cover. It might have worked if Weezer was trying to be ironic, but everything about Weezer’s sound and style as the aughts progressed seemed to indicate they’d gotten so into their own brand that they couldn’t see what was a joke and what wasn’t.
Then a tide turns. By 2014, Weezer starts to realize that the song’s fans most appreciate are still all culled from albums one and two. This results in the band performing both in full on tour and even cruises. The main marketing ploy behind 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End was that it was a return to the old sound, right down to the forced lyrics about the old days on lead single “Back to the Shack.” Still, the album featured songs better than over ten years’ worth of material and gave hope for the future.
The future is now and Weezer’s self-titled is gunning for an iconic labeling as another “White Album.” Ironically, the general conceit and sound of the record is way more Beach Boys than Beatles, but Brian Wilson prefigures even Lennon-McCartney as the first pop songwriter willing to incorporate his sorrows in the sunny-ish melodies Cuomo traffics in as well. Everything did turn out alright in the end, but one record later than they were hoping for. This is the first Weezer album in years to embrace the perfect balance struck on The Blue Album and really carry it through start to finish. It even gets Pinkerton-style weird on “Thank God for Girls” and “Do You Wanna Get High?”
Weezer’s been around for a fifth of a century now, and it’ll be interesting to see how their arc ends up looking to people who can look at their entire oeuvre with the same backward eye that gives too-bizarre pop albums like Pinkerton and Pet Sounds. They are due with more and more adoration every year after first being met with confusion or even derision. Hey, if we’re being honest here, The Beach Boys have a lot of really lame latter-day records. But it’s starting to look like late-career, Weezer might be on the upswing. After almost twenty years, Rivers Cuomo is starting to be comfortable with every part of his personality again, and we’re all the better for it.