Let’s just be honest for a moment: the Weezer of the 21st century has been perpetually dogged with a very simple (and alarmingly frequent) criticism—that they aren’t the same Weezer that emerged in 1994.
It may seem strange to criticize a band for, in essence, no longer being the same band that they were in their hey-day, but this is exactly what has happened to groups like Weezer and (rather interestingly) U2. Both acts released era-defining albums filled with iconic rock anthems that still get played to this day, and both bands—years down the line—then took a drastic, somewhat unexpected turn towards fully-bodied pop songs. Though we most certainly expect our rock idols to grow with each release and try new sounds and experiments, we frequently take issue when said group of artistic merit makes an “obvious” grab for a pop hit. We like our Radioheads and our Flaming Lips because bands of their ilk have remained “true” to their vision, their only actual “hits” being minor, sometimes even flukes (as is the case with the Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly”). When U2 inched ever closer to creating modern-day dance-rock hybrids during the late ‘90s (culminating with an album that was explicitly titled Pop), the political, anthemic spirit of their early days got lost in a sea of disco balls and laser shows, permanently losing some hardcore fans in the process despite the multiple “back to basics” efforts that dote U2’s post-Pop discography.
So while some fans bemoaned the glitzy detour that U2’s career took during the ‘90s, Weezer too have suffered similar pangs. As iconic as Weezer’s 1994’s eponymous debut was, it was the band’s 1996 album Pinkerton that truly defined their legacy. A “sleeper” album if there ever was one, the disc was conceived as a very deliberate step away from the Ric Ocasek-assisted pop sheen of their debut: self-produced, gritty-as-hell, and featuring frontman Rivers Cuomo’s must unabashedly personal lyrics to date. Though deemed a failure during the time of its release (Rolling Stone even calling it the “Worst Album of the Year”), the record slowly, gradually picked up followers, fans coming to the subtle realization that Cuomo had penned a true masterpiece, and even while the group remained inactive for the rest of the decade, their audience grew and swelled. So when the band’s second eponymous album emerged in 2001 (aka “the Green Album”), the group was greeted with open arms and several charting singles, something that was furthered with 2002’s rush-released follow-up Maladroit. Though Cuomo was shying away from the diary-level confessionals that made Pinkerton so compelling, the band’s knack for a catchy melody was still very much intact, tracks like “Island in the Sun” and “Dope Nose” still carrying Cuomo’s metaphors home each and every time.
Then, Make Believe happened.
After taking a three year break, the band returned with the single “Beverly Hills”—a rather blatant ode to wanting to live in ... Beverly Hills. Gone were the character studies, personal tales, and occasionally-deep metaphors: Cuomo was now dabbling in modern-day hedonistic fantasies and very little else, causing some speculation that Cuomo’s mid-life crisis was being played out in his remarkably shallow lyrics. Though the group’s melodic sense was sharper than ever (as evidenced by follow-up single “Perfect Situation”), Cuomo’s lyrical prowess was immediately called into question by fans and critics alike. “We Are All on Drugs”, for example, was an after-school special delivered via ‘80s synth-hooks, and several other songs on Make Believe were just flat-out embarrassing for a band who had previously plumbed such incredible emotional depths. When last year’s third eponymous disc came out (a.k.a. “the Red Album”), the band scored one of their biggest hits ever (“Pork & Beans”) with some of the most inane lyrics of their career (“Everyone likes to dance to a happy song / With a catchy chorus and beat so they could sing along / Timbaland knows the way to the top of the charts / Maybe if I work with him I can perfect the art”). It’s almost as if Cuomo wasn’t even trying anymore, just laying out his intentions threadbare: he wants hits, and wants to make songs about getting laid. Though it has always been noted that Cuomo has never wanted to revisit his more confessional side, never would his late ‘90s fans ever have guessed that it would lead to a track like “Troublemaker”, wherein he actually manages to rhyme the word “kids” with “beyotch”.
Herein lies the problem. Though, yes, Cuomo’s latter-day lyrics certainly don’t hold up to close scrutiny, are we judging them because of their one-dimensional nature, or are we judging them simply because they’re not the same kind of lyrics that Cuomo was penning in the ‘90s? In short, are we criticizing Weezer for not being Weezer anymore? It’s a difficult issue to navigate. Though Cuomo has opened himself up (somewhat) via his two volumes of rarities and demos (2007’s Alone and its 2008 follow-up, respectively), those albums were more for archival purposes than anything else, showing insight into his process but not his motivations. Thus, in approaching Raditude—the band’s seventh full-length album—let us not judge it by comparing it to other Weezer albums. Let us judge it for what it is: a collection of straight-faced, irony-free pop songs written by a guy who knows his way around a hook ...
With that in mind, then, why is Raditude one of the worst albums to be released in 2009? The reason is simple. Raditude is an album that forgets one of the principal rules of songwriting: specificity leads to universality. In the Chuck Klosterman book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman notes the power of the Trisha Yearwood song “She’s in Love with the Boy”, wherein the girl at the center of the story gets proposed to by her high school sweetheart “outside the Tastee Freeze”. Being as how Tastee Freezes were (and in some places still are) a very iconic part of the South and Midwest, that unusually specific detail actually wound up describing the lives of millions of people, much like how Cuomo once tried to take a girl to a Green Day concert who then said that she has “never heard of them”—another specific detail that is, in fact, relatable to many, as it describes a very specific type of girl. Even in “Beverly Hills”, Cuomo was able to draw out analogies of not going off to boarding school lead him to not being looked at by preppy girls—another somewhat specific detail that made his ode to the upper crust just a slight bit more relatable.
Even though Raditude is unabashedly mainstream, rarely has pop music ever been so painfully generic. On the sitar-accented track “Love Is the Answer”—which was already given a better, rock-oriented treatment on Sugar Ray’s Music for Cougars (of all things)—the sentiments that Cuomo expresses are more saccharine than what passes for a Hallmark card these days:
“There will come a day
When we transcend the pain
Until that day
Take it easy on yourself
Love is the answer
Makes no difference what you prefer
Love is the answer
You have got to trust in the world”
The international flavor of the track feels more like blatant trend-chasing than anything else, a sentiment which can also be shared with the Lil’ Wayne-assisted rap song “Can’t Stop Partying”, in which Cuomo does his best Kevin Rudolf impression and—again—details his desire for pretty women, jewels, and alcoholic beverages (because even though Timbaland knows the way to the top of the charts, apparently only Polow da Don was available). There isn’t a trace of satire, parody, or sarcasm on any of these tracks: everything on Raditude is cringe-inducingly superficial, mistaking bumper sticker slogans for actual emotional depth. Some may argue that Weezer is just “having fun” these days, but what true fun can had via riffs and words that we’ve heard hundreds of times before, here rehashed for the umpteenth time? Raditude isn’t fun, no. Instead Raditude is just downright forgettable.
As the “Mutt” Lange-esque horndog anthems pile up (“I’m Your Daddy”, “The Girl Got Hot”, the “homies”-night-out tale “Let It All Hang Out”), so do the oodles of lyrical clichés (like the meandering Patrick Wilson-penned “In the Mall”—which is primarily about ... spending time in a mall). The love-hate relationship of the characters in “Tripping Down the Freeway” is unrealistic on every count (they hate each other one moment and then abruptly pledge eternal love to each other for absolutely no reason to speak of), leaving the lead single “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” as the only song featuring any sort of substance or actual, palpable excitement—though even that’s deflated somewhat. With wry chord changes a fun little drum-lead pre-chorus, “I Want You To” initially leads us to believe that Raditude will actually live up to its Rainn Wilson-inspired title and just be nothing more than a delightful romp through rock music’s storied party-hearty history. Yet even with some solid verses and more fleshed-out character descriptions (it says a lot about a couple when they watch Titanic and don’t get sad), the overall sentiment of simply getting some (and in a hurry, no less, as the narrator hasn’t got all night) is a bit tired, even as the upbeat acoustic pluckings that swirl around the track try desperately to raise the sentiment above its sophomoric surroundings.
Yet there’s something profoundly, profoundly strange about Raditude. On last year’s Alone II compilation, both “Can’t Stop Partying” and Raditude‘s closing number “I Don’t Want to Let You Go” were presented in acoustic demo format—and, remarkably, they worked. Cuomo’s delivery was unpretentious and honest, “Can’t Stop Partying” working especially well in the lo-fi format because the minor-key chords and simple acoustic strummings came off as an ironic gesture, almost as if the track’s young narrator was simply wishing for all of these things to happen to him, and by projecting his rap video fantasies outward, there existed a chance that maybe—just maybe—they’d come true. Tragically, the full-bodied production on the Raditude versions of these songs ultimately rob them of any sort of emotional honesty, as the glitzy, radio-ready sheen suddenly makes Cuomo’s words sound like they’re written solely for pop chart consideration—something that doesn’t come across at all on the Alone II versions.
Although hardcore fans have already bemoaned Weezer’s more recent efforts for playing to the lowest common denominator, others (as previously mentioned) have accepted the fact that Weezer simply just want to have fun with their music these days, and what’s really so wrong about that? Well, Raditude is what’s wrong with that: it’s an album filled with hooks that don’t last beyond a few listens and lyrics that we’ve already heard several times over, all topped off with an sneering attitude that feels more like the band just threw up their hands and said “why put effort into the songs if people are going to buy them anyways?” Although it’s one thing to come down on an album for just being mediocre (which Raditude very much is), it’s a whole different matter when its makers don’t seem to care what you think about it anyway, so long as you buy it (pandering Lil’ Wayne cameos and all).
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you look at this as a Weezer album or just a pop album, because the result is the same: Raditude is not art. It’s not a serious rock album nor is it a collection disposably fun songs. No, Raditude is product. Coldly calculated, joyless product that is designed to be sold, not to be enjoyed. As a Weezer album, it is nothing short of a profound disappointment. By any other standard, it’s just the worst album of the year.
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// Notes from the Road
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