[12 September 2010]
Is it completely unreasonable to expect something resembling actual music from Weezer at this point? It has to be one of the most puzzling and enduring stories in all of rock ‘n’ roll. Weezer has somehow maintained a massively devoted fan base full of individuals who are unrelentingly dissatisfied with almost all of the band’s post-Pinkerton output. Weezer’s long-suffering fans have been willing to weather Maladroit, and “Beverly Hills”, and Scott Shriner’s vocals, for those rare occurrences where Rivers Cuomo accidentally writes a brilliant song. No matter how bizarre or misguided Weezer’s albums have been over the last 10 years, fans have been able to count on at least 2.3 songs per album that don’t call into question the validity of Cuomo’s Harvard diploma. Those with diminished expectations were adequately serviced up until 2009s Raditude, a ghastly clusterfuck of an album that burned up the last remaining threads of goodwill leftover from the band’s ‘90s heyday. The few folks left waiting around for Cuomo to properly utilize his unparalleled composition skills were eternally disheartened to see him fully embrace the vapid, irony-free Top 40 pap he’s been flirting with over the last few years.
When Rivers and Co. dropped The Green Album in 2001 after a lengthy hiatus, the kids all pissed in their porridge because the album lacked the confessional lyrics and unvarnished production of its predecessor. Hearing it today, it’s hard to imagine how this slight album was the catalyst for the still-thriving anti-Weezer movement. The album, which holds up as well as The Blue Album, was never intended to be more than a collection of too-safe, polished power pop. In the most widely circulated version of the Weezer saga, our bespectacled hero Rivers Cuomo, so stung by the frosty reception that greeted Pinkerton and embarrassed by the revealing nature of the album’s lyrics, holed up in a windowless apartment for five years and vowed to never again share the full spectrum of his songwriting talents. Upon closer examination, it appears that the negative reaction to The Green Album was a bigger dent in Cuomo’s pride than anyone recognized at the time. This time, instead of retreating to a closet under the 101 Freeway, Cuomo embarked on an Attention Deficit Disorder fueled rampage that continues to this day.
It’s tough to imagine in a post-Raditude world that as recently as two years ago things were looking up for the band. 2008 saw the release of The Red Album, which, had it not been for Cuomo’s head-scratchingly poor decision to let his each of his bandmates take turns at the mic, nearly went down as a truly satisfying listening experience. The singles were clever and album closer “The Angel and the One”, easily one of the finest songs in the Weezer catalogue, found the band playing like an actual band for the first time in many years. Around this time Cuomo also threw open his vaults for the unexpectedly revealing and cohesive Alone series. Rivers Cuomo, acclaimed songwriter, was briefly back in business, until Rivers Cuomo, jumpsuit-wearing pop star, showed up the following year. Cuomo seemed to be throwing up a huge stop sign to the folks who got all giddy over his scratchy home recordings and The Red Album’s introspective (albeit extremely unsubtle) moments. Although Weezer still somehow gets tons of love from hipster blogs, and indie upstarts like Titus Andronicus cover their songs on tour, the band’s sights appear to be set on the Billboard Hot 100. Rivers Cuomo always said he wanted to be in KISS, not Guided by Voices.
Of course, people have been hating on Weezer for so long now that the Weezer backlash has finally incited its own backlash. The critics tell the kids what they already know: Your old Weezer is never coming back so stop treating the band like a giant piñata every time they release a new album. The goofball songs are here to stay. Rivers is 40 now, which means he needs to divide his time between trying to think like a 13-year-old and making lists of words that rhyme with “homie”.
Glancing at the “cover art” for Hurley, the band’s first post-Geffen album and eighth overall, there’s no reason not to expect another catastrophe waiting in the wings. If you’re charitable enough to forget that Raditude ever happened, however, you’ll find Hurley to be very much in the same spirit as The Red Album. Recorded quickly, the album finds Cuomo mellowed considerably. We’re still talking about Weezer here, so of course there’s a ration of those “fun” songs that Cuomo just can’t help spitting out. This time around the lowlights aren’t nearly as low, and there’s more than a few moments that sound as if they were engineered by actual human beings.
It doesn’t start off so promisingly. While a chunky, Weezer-patented riff bubbles to the surface, Cuomo shout/sings “Pissing in plastic cups before we went on stage / Playing hacky sack back when Audioslave was still Rage.” This is “Memories”, which sees Cuomo wax nostalgic about Weezer’s formative years while the band launches into a pile-driving, floor-on-the floor chorus that benefits from some refreshingly raw production. For the first time in years, the bass is way up in the mix, the guitars solos are buried, and searing keyboard lines bleed over everything. While the chorus is infectious and there’s a B-section plucked straight from Pinkerton, the song brings to light a new complaint about Cuomo’s songwriting. For most of the last 10 years people got down on Cuomo for not sharing enough lyrically. Now, it seems, he does nothing but share and he can’t find a way to do so tactfully. If it wasn’t obvious enough when he was singing about crushing on underage fans, River Cuomo is a pretty strange dude. His brain is wired differently than almost any other rock star. While he may be a clever lyricist, he’s sort of a lousy storyteller. So while Weezer may have seen Dutch kids barfing and boning outside a club before a gig, as Cuomo sings on “Memories”, the information does little to aid our understanding and enjoyment of the story. It’s an awkward tidbit that, like much of the band’s recent output, makes everyone just a little uncomfortable.
Luckily, thanks to some key assists from outside hands, Cuomo rarely falls into the same trap again, and the majority of Hurley is mindless (dare I even say it) fun. Many were quick to blame Raditude‘s failure on that album’s baffling roster of guest stars. It’ll most likely remain a mystery exactly what either Weezer or Lil’ Wayne expected to get out of their ill-fated collaboration. Although Hurley also comes with an eyebrow-raising list of cameo appearances, these guests don’t show up to the party empty handed. On the fired-up, dancehall-ready “Ruling Me”, former Semisonic leader Dan Wilson shows the band that you can court the high school crowds without dated pop culture references. Besides constantly frustrating their fans, Ryan Adams and Rivers Cuomo would appear to have little in common on paper. Their work together on “Run Away” provides the band with their brightest highlight in many years. The track launches from a demo of Rivers gently tapping out a lullaby on the piano into a into a shambling power pop gem with an embarrassment of killer hooks. With a mandolin lead nicked from ELO, the soaring “Hang On” is the kind simple ear candy that drew people to the band in the first place.
Of course, Cuomo, shrewd businessman that he is, realizes that the band isn’t going to blow up YouTube without one its wacky videos. And you can’t make a wacky video without a wacky song, can you? When it was announced that Hurley was to contain a track called “Where’s My Sex?”, one optimistically hoped for a sequel to “Tired of Sex”. No such luck. Apparently Cuomo’s infant daughter is in the habit of mistakenly referring to socks and “sex”. Cuomo thought it would be just hilarious to write a song taking advantage of his daughter’s innocent slip-up. So while it sounds like he’s singing about, you know, doin’ it—he’s actually singing about those things we wear on our feet. Over a couple of lazy chords hijacked from Green Day, the Ivy League-educated Cuomo sings “Going back to the caveman days / They were walking around in a haze / Until they figured it out and said “gosh dang, this is great!” The fact that the song is actually pretty catchy is likely to make people despise its subject matter even more intensely.
The whackness parade continues on “Smart Girls”. Cuomo has described the song as sounding like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, which makes me think Cuomo has never actually heard “Back in the U.S.S.R.”. Cuomo changed the title of the song from “Hot Girls” to “Smart Girls”, fearing that “hot” was too misogynistic (this from the guy who lamented “marrying a beeyotch” a few albums back). We’re back in novelty pop territory here as Cuomo expounds on the merits of the aforementioned smart girls (they never get enough! they sleep in the buff!). “Lisa, Britney, Paula, Whitney / Which one do I want here with me?” Which one, indeed?
Fortunately, the moronic moments pass by quickly and the rest of the album, though still slightly spastic in tone, succeeds by not trying to do everything at once. The band seamlessly incorporates strings and flute into the delicate “Unspoken”, the kind of acoustic ballad that Weezer should consider offering up more of in the future. An unnecessary full-band coda turns the track into Nirvana-lite, yet it’s nice to hear grossly underutilized drummer (and sometimes lead guitarist) Patrick Wilson awarded the chance to cut loose on the kit. The album concludes with “Time Flies”, easily the most primitive-sounding recording ever to grace a Weezer album (they are on Epitaph now). Coming off like a long lost ‘60s campfire singalong, “Time Flies” is very much the flipside to “Memories”. Guided along by legendary country songwriter Mac Davis, Cuomo is once again in a nostalgic mood, yet this time, by speaking in simple language, he makes his message far more relatable. It’s hard to hear Cuomo sing “Some sad day they’ll be taking me away but I won’t be dead / Cuz’ even when I’m gone this stupid damn song will be in your head / I’ll be looking down with a twinkle in my eye”, without tearing up.
Weezer are currently making their home on a major indie, so the stakes are presumably much lower. Cuomo has hinted that he’d like the band to crank out an album per year, like artists were free (and talented enough) to do back in the day. Given the band’s checkered history, there’s no telling if Hurley is a new beginning or simply this year’s model. Whether 2011 will bring a fully-realized rock opera or Raditwode: The Sequel! is anyone’s guess. Whatever shenanigans Rivers Cuomo gets up to next time around, he can rest easy knowing that the unsatisfied Weezer faithless will always be waiting to greet him with folded arms.