Weezer: a buyer’s guide to Rivers Cuomo’s mischievous songbook

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Ridiculed and adored in equal measure, Weezer have been delighting and frustrating for over 25 years; Getintothis’ Matthew Eland tries to put everything into some kind of order.

Let’s do a thought experiment: what if Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Neutral Milk Hotel‘s  Jeff Mangum had swapped places?

Both were born five months apart, and both entered into periods of obscurity after early success; but only one returned to release new music.

What if had been Mangum wrestling with the legacy of his earlier work, trying to balance critical and commercial success while also appeasing the fans? What if it was him writing tracks with titles such as Girl’s Got Hot?

And what if Cuomo had dropped out of the music business, leaving The Blue Album and Pinkerton as an impeccable, unbesmirched legacy, returning only to do the ATP-sponsored reunion gigs a decade later?

He certainly had the mythos for it: raised in an ashram, reconstructive surgery to make his legs the same size; a period where he painted the walls of his house black, and one where he went to Harvard and grew a massive beard to stop fans from recognising him.

Weezer came to prominence in the second half of the nineties, when nu-metal ruled American rock. A lot of fans found their songs – about the destruction of quality knitwear and being in bad Kiss cover bands – easier to identify with compared to tunes about not wanting to tidy your room up.

Many people are fond of the group, Weezer having provided the soundtrack to their adolescent, formative years. A lot of those fans have had their patience tested since then.

But the thought lingers: are we giving Weezer too much of a hard time? After all, who cares if they’re a credible, legitimate concern any more? Has nostalgia clouded our judgement? Does it even matter?

Weezer are in the news again thanks to their cover of Africa and The Teal Album. They’ve been accused of pandering too much to disposable meme culture, of overdosing on kitsch and irony in response to the earnestness and sincerity of some of their earlier material, which itself seemed to take a psychic toll on Cuomo.

Their talismanic lead singer has been a source of much frustration and intrigue for years, and now seems like a good time to journey through their back catalogue. But who will come off worse? Cuomo, or our teenage selves?

13. Make Believe (2005)

This was supposed to be a return to the sincerity of Cuomo’s earlier style of songwriting.

However, he had just got into meditation, and as such it’s more of a stage-managed navel-gazing exercise than a long dark night of the soul. When Cuomo tries to apologise for his behaviour over the previous few years in Pardon Me – there were rumours about separate tour buses and no eye contact around this time – it sounds more like an exercise in insincere Californian self-improvement than an admission of genuine regret.

When it’s not being facile and anodyne, it’s chasing some of the comedy rock success of the Keep Fishin’ video, with Beverley Hills and We Are All On Drugs. Tragically, they’re the best songs on the album: at least they’re not boring.

12. Hurley (2010)

This is the one that’s named after a character from Lost; which is funny, because it marks the point for many fans at which the group were irretrievably so.

Granted, opener Memories is a decent single; nostalgic and obnoxious, it features the wonderful line ‘Pissing in plastic cups before we went on stage/Playing hackey sack back when Audioslave was still Rage‘.

If it was all stupid power-pop like this, Hurley could have been a success; but instead, the group make more of their frequent latter-day sojourns into MOR. They even have the lad from Semisonic on co-writing duties on Ruling Me.

The album is at its best when Cuomo is having some fun. On first listen, Where’s My Sex? seems to be a (highly questionable) deconstruction of impotent male rage, after the manner of No Pussy Blues by Grinderman (only less successful). Repeated listens reveal it to be about a man who’s lost his socks and can’t leave the house.

This might have been funny, except it’s followed by a track called Smart Girls, in which the depth of Cuomo’s sexual frustration is lamentably exposed. (Perhaps someone should inform his wife.)

This is something that happens occasionally in Weezer’s ouvere: Cuomo tries to make a winkingly subversive point about gender politics and comes off looking creepy.

11. Pacific Daydream (2017)

After the credit built up by the White Album, the group decided to pour turps on those green shoots of recovery with Pacific Daydream. Cuomo composed the songs by hiring programmers to match up song ideas, riffs and lyric fragments, and compiled them together.

If this sounds like something avant garde and experimental, then allow us to refute that immediately; lead track Mexican Fender sounds like McFly covering Maroon Five. Traces of Pharrell and Carly Rae Jepsen abound, especially on songs such as Feels Like Summer, except everything is just so forgettable. Rather than being daft like Raditude, it’s all so beige.

The only noteworthy track is QB Blitz, which begins with ‘All of my conversations die a painful death you see/I can’t get anyone to do algebra with me.’

This is the key that unlocks the album, painting a sad picture of the reality of its conception: one of a record created by a man whose struggles with empathy lead him to algorithms and (slightly creepy) platonic Tinder dates in an effort to identify with people.

10. Raditude (2009)

Ah, Raditude. This is the flash point for many Weezer fans. It’s so bad it’s almost good. After all, there’s a sense of cohesion that the previous few releases were missing. The fixity of purpose would be impressive if, well…if Cuomo wasn’t old enough to know better.

Every song sounds like it was written for a high-school teen-movie montage.

I’m Your Daddy is a flirtation with Since You’ve Been Gone pop that just about manages to stay on the right side of irony, but The Girl Got Hot (‘she got hot, they did not‘) crosses the line into an offensive, Wheatus underworld.

Nirvana’s Bleach turns 30: A relentless two-chord garage beat laying Cobain’s thunderous sonic foundations

Can’t Stop Partying channels Rebecca Black and Kesha while Lil Wayne raps in the middle eight (‘Weezer and it’s Weezey‘ the lyrical highlight); Put Me Back Together is a lamentable stab at Fallout Boy-style emo (‘I’m alone in my room/I don’t know what to do‘).

In the Mall is the high point, but damningly, it’s written by drummer Pat Wilson, promoted to guitar for this release. It offers a glimpse to the sort of teenage stupidity that might have been grounds for a more successful pastiche; but on the rest of the album, Cuomo is genuinely grasping for pop crossover approval, an attempt that was only ever destined for failure.

9. Weezer (The Teal Album) (2019)

This is the one where Weezer became a wedding band. A collection of covers so slavish, you wonder why they bothered; if you heard any of these tracks in a lift or a shopping centre, you’d have to listen pretty carefully to be sure it wasn’t the original. Except, perhaps, their rendition of TLC’s No Scrubs.

In a way though, this proves just how relevant Weezer are in 2019; a heritage act releasing a joke album purely for meme value. If anything, it’s illustrative of the clout they still wield; Weezer are still free to do whatever they want. It’s their world, we just live in it.

8. Weezer (The Black Album) (2019)

An suggestions that The Black Album might feature some darker material are immediately dispelled with the cheesy funk of Can’t Knock The Hustle.

With contributions from a number of songwriters, it’s closer in conception to Jay Z than Metallica, with added segues into Scouting for Girls territory; Living in L.A. is more weak California MOR and I’m Just Being Honest is a prime slide of Cuomo passive-aggression.

However, it’s not completely irredeemable. Too Many Thoughts in My Head echoes the vocal melody from Hash Pipe and is the first time the band have sounded propulsive and vital in years, perhaps due to the production from Dave Sitek.

Most startling though is California Snow, which features a looped Fang Island/Zach Hill hammer-on guitar line and preposterous white-boy rapping. Naturally, it’s ludicrous, but for once Cuomo isn’t just phoning it in, and it sounds like he’s actually having fun at the same time.

7. Weezer (The Red Album) (2008)

Parts of The Red Album are good, but ultimately it’s damning that this one is so high up the list.

It ranks due to the first part of the album. Troublemaker has some of their early swagger, but the guitar solo nah nah nahing sends them close to Tenacious D territory. Pork and Beans is a decent single, one not too far from the template many consider to be their baseline.

The standout, though, is The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker hymn). It
aims for an ambitious Bohemian Rhapsody-style swagger and ominously foreshadows some of the hell to come on Raditude. ‘You try to play cool like you just don’t care/But soon I’ll be playin’ in your underwear‘ is not a line a 38-year-old man should ever sing.

It’s so stupid it works, each verse done in the style of a different artist (Elvis, Nirvana, Bach) in a self-aggrandising summation of their career (‘After the havoc that I’m going to wreak, no words will critics have to speak.’)

Unfortunately, it’s followed on the second half of the record with some weapons-grade passive aggression.

In a rare (and ill-advised) move, Cuomo invites the other band members to each submit a song. Patrick Wilson’s effort fares the best, Brian Bell’s is redneck rent-a-rhyme MOR, and Scott Shriner’s is next-level awful (sample lyric: ‘Angel girl in a cold dark world; I’ll make you understand’).

It’s almost as if Cuomo is illustrating to his critics how gifted he really is, hanging his colleagues out to dry in the process. Or maybe Cuomo was looking for a way forward; it’s notable that the band would turn to external songwriters in the years following this release.

6. Weezer (The White Album) (2016)

Some quarters heralded this as a return to form. That’s not quite true, but neither is it easy to simply dismiss The White Album. It’s certainly the one with the most fan-pleasing callbacks to earlier work. El Scorcho, Pink Triangle and Only In Dreams all receive musical nods.

The Beach Boys references from Blue are intensified and melded with the power-pop of Green, while the soul searching of Pinkerton is revisited, particularly on Do You Want to Get High, where Rivers discusses his turn-of-the-millenium prescription drug addiction, and Jacked Up, which ruminates over a one-night stand.

Alarm bells ring elsewhere. On first listen, the sentiment of Thank God for Girls is fairly troubling, especially when it’s being sung by a fifty-year-old man. A closer look at the lyrics shows that it’s got a bit more going on for it. In the narrative, a group of nerds have headed out into the woods.

They’re concerned about having to employ their testosterone in D&D-style duels with ruffians and dragons, and fantasise about the girl in the pastry shop (who makes big fat cannolis to shove in their mouths) attending to the resultant cuts, bruises and stab wounds.

Cuomo goes on to retell the story of Adam, who goes off in a huff after God steals his rib, and he starts lighting minor forest fires and ‘messing with the bees who were trying to pollinate the echinacea’. It’s bravura stuff, several lyrical levels above what they made their name with, taking in themes of male inadequacy and incel culture, self-deprecating and arch at the same time.

And yet, it doesn’t quite land. Maybe it’s the production, maybe it’s Rivers’ recent track record going against him. Maybe it’s because other men with alt-rock pedigrees – such as Steve Albini, with Shellac’s Dude Incredible (even though he’s said it’s about monkeys) – have trodden the same path with better results.

Maybe by cloaking their message in the guise of jock mall rock, they’ve undermined the very message they’ve tried to deliver.

Either way, there’s a nagging sense that in different hands, they could have been on to a winner.

5. Weezer (The Green Album) (2001)

This album exists mainly as an exercise in reputation management, as if Cuomo thought that by putting out a collection of lyrically bland and non-specific tunes he could dilute the earnestness of the previous album.

Even so, there’s something weirdly sleazy about tracks such as Crab, as if the more dysfunctional side of his personality couldn’t help but get through.

Aside from that, the record generally works as a summer barbeque background-noise album, with its sunny chord progressions and Brian Wilson melodies, but this is surface at best.

Cuomo was in the habit of writing a song a day at this point, and it’s obvious that some of the tunes have had less time to develop than those on earlier albums.

4. Everything Will Be Alright in the End (2014)

This one was the return to form after Hurley and Raditude. Ric Ocasek produces once again, which means that the classic Weezer sound of 1994 return is back.

The group’s desire to realign themselves with rock means that the chugging into of Ain’t Got Nobody even sounds a bit like Swans; for about fifteen seconds, granted, but it’s a musical statement of intent.

A lyrical statement of intent follows; Back to the Shack serves as a recap and apology (“maybe I should play the lead guitar and Pat should play the drums”) and sees Rivers apologising, not for the first time, about the people (fans included) he’s alienated.

The quality of the collaborations is high, and more judicious than usual; I’ve Had it up to Here was co-written with Justin Hawkins of The Darkness, which makes a lot of sense. On Foolish Father he’s joined by Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus, illustrating further the web of his influence.

Go Away is a poppy duet with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino that, in reality, had a better chance of crossover appeal than anything on Raditude.

The album ends with The Futurescope Trilogy: three linked, partially instrumental tunes, demonstrating a more ambitious prog side hinted at by the eventually scrapped Songs from the Black Hole and The Red Album’s Greatest Man Who Ever Lived.

It’s not properly explored here either, but it’s curious to note that a group so aligned with their three-chord, four-on-the-floor structures should occasionally swing, however briefly, in other directions.

 

 

3. Maladroit (2002)

There was a bit more innovation on Maladroit. This was the last stop for many fans, whose teenage devotion would be sorely tested by later efforts.

There’s more of a heavy metal feel to this one, with high-gain riffs and Kiss-style guitar solos. Dope Nose is the earworm almost-hit, Death and Destruction a waltzing ballad sans the mawkish self-pity of Make Believe-era Weezer; Burntd Jamb is half club-tropicana harmonies and half swirly riff wig-out.

Unfortunately, Possibilities and December sail a bit too close to Weezer’s MOR tendencies, while Keep Fishin’ only exists to supplement its Muppets music video. That the album is a collection of songs as opposed to a cohesive body of work speaks to Cuomo’s newly industrialised working practises.

Weezer’s “difficult second album” – Pinkerton 20 years on

2. Pinkerton (1996)

From the abrasive first chords of Tired of Sex, it’s clear that Weezer had taken a different, almost Albini-ish tack with this one.

It sounds a lot less produced than Blue; you can hear the air in the room. Cuomo compared this album to getting drunk at a party, spilling your guts and regretting it the next day.

Luckily, he’s reappraised it in recent years, and seems to better understand the esteem in which it’s held with the fans.

Some of the songs steer a bit too close to the line – it’s doubtful that Across the Sea and Pink Triangle would escape a social media pile-on these days – but they’re saved by the raw confessional honesty that’s gone into them.

Pinkerton has a lot to answer for – it’s an early precursor to a lot of terrible emo, for instance – but this is still a record of consistent quality.

1. Weezer (The Blue Album) (1994)

Ten songs, no fat; no sign of the bonus-track tyranny that would come to haunt a lot of millenial post-Napster releases. And none of the emotional and career baggage that would go to define the band in later years.

It’s remarkable how clean, how pristine The Blue Album sounds now.

There are early hints of Cuomo’s lyrical power, and his fondness for mischief; the transition from No One Else (about a jealous boyfriend who implores his partner to “leave her make-up on the shelf“) to The World Has Turned and Left Me Here (in which the slimy protagonist has been binned off and is feeling sorry for himself) is a good early indication of the depth and nuance Cuomo can achieve.

The Beach Boys pastiche Surf Wax America, which sees a gen-Xer gloating at workers stuck in the office before being pulled out to see on a rip tide, is a clever riff on slacker sanctimony, with added barbershop quartet.

Only In Dreams is an unexpectedly proggy closer, with its extended jammy ending hinting at some of the more ambitious structures to come later in their career. That the hit singles Buddy Holly and The Sweater Song don’t overpower the rest of the album is testament to its overall quality.

 

After listening to all of Weezer’s studio albums, it’s easy to see why people think they should have called it quits after two. But on balance, the fact that they didn’t, even to the detriment of that perfect brace of classic albums, is kind of amazing.

The reality is that Weezer have done exactly what they want. Every move has made sense, even when it’s not been great.

Even as Cuomo has struggled with his legacy, with his interactions with others and with their expectations of him, he’s plotted a course so idiosyncratic and occasionally self-sabotaging that it’s a big achievement for them to still be around.

They’re not going anywhere either; two new albums, OK Human and Van Weezer, are reputed to be in the works. There’s no confirmation yet on whether Cuomo will rap on them, but it’s a possibility that can’t be discounted.

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