[17 December 2007]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
In 2005, Weezer released their critically maligned fifth album, Make Believe, but what ultimately proved to be more lasting than the songs it contained was, instead, a Rolling Stone article that preempted the release. In the article (excerpted here), frontman Rivers Cuomo—fresh on his Rick Rubin-inspired meditation binge—comes across as a conceded as insular man, totally believing that he wasn’t just writing pop songs, but making unmistakable “art”; all while the rest of the band completely submitted to Cuomo’s every melodic whim, even going as far as to grant Cuomo “veto power” in the recording process. Though Cuomo was always the focal point of Weezer from the get-go, few people knew that the band had morphed into a power-pop dictatorship, which suddenly brought clarity to things like former guitarist Matt Sharp’s mysterious 1998 departure from the platinum guitar heroes.
Yet an increasingly Cuomo-centric way of life wasn’t the only problem that the ‘00 Weezer was facing. Quite simply, despite some absolutely stellar singles (“Island in the Sun”, “Dope Nose”, and “Perfect Situation” chief among them), Weezer’s post-millennial output wasn’t holding a candle to the one-two masterpiece punch that Weezer broke out of the gate with: the pitch-perfect power pop of their eponymous ‘94 debut and the raw, harrowing (and even funny) introspection of 1996’s Pinkerton. The latter—a sleeper album if there ever was one—was one of rock’s most abrasive-yet-absorbing listens, as Cuomo had inadvertently crafted an album of exposed-nerve confessions that spoke to a whole generation of horn-rimmed rock fans. Cuomo never once attempted to re-create the album, and no one can criticize him for not wanting to repeat the past. Yet Cuomo never thought of Pinkerton as a one-off: he did nothing short of disowning it entirely after its release. It wouldn’t be long before fans began scouring for unreleased material from that era, most notably in the form of demos for Songs from the Black Hole: a space-voyage rock-opera which was intended as the initial follow-up to The Blue Album. Though low-fi MP3s did manage to find their way online, it isn’t until now (the end of 2007) that we finally get the first official release of some of those songs… as well as a boatload of solo recordings from Rivers’ big ol’ vault of unreleased material.
Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo is exactly what it sounds like: an album of one-offs, hard-to-finds, and unreleased material that dates all the way back to 1984 (though a majority of the material comes from his active 1993-5 period). Though it features a seemingly-intimidating 18 tracks, the whole affair clocks in at 46 minutes, largely due to short songs (a wiry and somewhat inexplicable cover of Ice Cube’s “The Bomb”) and interludes (the totally-pointless dialogue snippet “I Wish I Had an Axe Guitar” and the vocals-only experiment “Ooh”). Like any proper major-label rarities compilation, it features the demo of the immensely popular song (a slower, grittier take on “Buddy Holly”), the much-discussed-but-never-heard batch of concept songs (four songs from Black Hole), a solid cover (Dion’s “Little Diane”, performed with another great power-pop group: Sloan), and—of course—a disposable new-wave song played over a street-level hip-hop beat (“This is the Way”). Yet once all of that excess is shaved away, the remaining eight tracks stand as some of the strongest material that Cuomo has ever recorded. Had these eight been released by themselves under the Weezer name, the band would have had their best reviews in a decade.
Yet, having provided the soundtrack for millions of adolescents in the mid-‘90s, it should come as no surprise that when critics hold Weezer’s music up to trail, it’s actually Cuomo himself that is line for the harshest sniping. When Cuomo took some time off to re-educate himself at Harvard, everyone from Pitchfork to SPIN was more than willing to cover his dorm life, often painting him as (surprise surprise) a nervous introvert who never used his rock god caché to raid any parties or get free beer from “Sweater Song”-worshipping co-eds. He never played for the cameras like Paris Hilton, but—whether he liked it or not—his moves were under close examination from all the wannabe rock historians, as if an even higher level of catharsis could be achieved by understanding the context in which he wrote the songs. It’s no wonder that such scrutiny would make Cuomo delve deeper into his turtle shell.
All of this, however, is what makes the liner notes of Alone such a revelation: Cuomo absolutely opens up about each and every song by giving the context, admitting the flaws, and telling the tales that inspired each and every one. The song “Wanda (You’re My Only Love)”, for example, nearly equals the acoustic catharsis of the Pinkerton-closing ballad “Butterfly” all by its beautiful self. However, the song manages to take on a whole new meaning when you learn that Cuomo was approached by the producers of the movie Angus to pen a song for the soundtrack. So overjoyed by the notion of writing a song to accompany someone else’s story, he attacked it with all his relish, felt personally blown away by the results, and then was crushed when said producers rejected that song and used “You Gave Your Love” instead. Suddenly, “Wanda” takes on a whole new meaning (especially if you just finished watching Angus). Of course don’t feel too sorry for Cuomo: he also wrote “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly”, which was used in the final cut.
Yet Cuomo doesn’t stop unearthing his history there. No doubt wanting to be emancipated from his sudden rock-star lifestyle in 1994, he wound up penning “Longtime Sunshine” on his mother’s piano (with the added bonus of Cuomo throwing his limited clarinet skills into the mix as well), and writes a simple, rhyme-free ballad about wanting to escape his busy life and “go back to school / an East-coast college with some history”. These aren’t the kind of songs that grab the attention of Grammy voters, but they were never intended as such: they are just the simple, private songs of a better-than-average home recordist. Alone is sequenced in such a way as to immediately disarm anyone who is expecting a disc chock full of “American Gigolo”-styled rockers. The second track, in fact, is a cover of an obscure Gregg Alexander song (though you perhaps know him better as the hatted frontman of one hit wonders the New Radicals), “The World We Love So Much”, here redone as lush, acoustic psychedelia. Of course, if one did not check the liner notes, this song could still pass as a Maladroit-era Cuomo original (especially with lines like “we’ll dance on the graves of our enemies / won’t that be a blast? / but I’m ending my life / ‘cos you’re sharp as a knife”). Even the Make Believe reject (“I Was Made For You”) stands as a good-if-not-amazing Weezer track on its own.
As if none of this is enticing enough, Alone winds up being a worthwhile listen if not just for two absolutely knockout tracks. “Lover in the Snow”, with its stop-start guitar riffs and two-tone drum beat, is a stone-cold classic from play number one. Cuomo describes no longer being able to look at a girl who he fancied now that she’s being wooed by another guy, and though the lyrics are biting, they work simply because they ride on the single most accessible melody that Cuomo has ever penned. Being so sparse and simple, it’s doubtful that it would ever have gotten play on mainstream rock radio, but as it stands, it absolutely cries out for consideration on the inevitable Best of Weezer compilation. Immediately following that golden nugget is another equally stunning rock number called “Crazy One” (which also gets the bonus of having the best liner-notes story of them all). By marrying a wall of feedback to dream-pop chord progressions, Cuomo crafts a first-rate track that could have easily made its way onto The Blue Album, especially with its simple, yearning plea of “I want to see you again”. The disarmed honesty contained in these songs is as immediate as it is utterly remarkable.
In the album’s thank-you section, Cuomo thanks Pete Townshend for “paving the way with his Scoop series.” It’s a fitting and understandable tribute: more often than not, Townshend’s demos for the Who were just as fleshed out as the finished, studio versions, and the entire Scoop series is absolutely overflowing with unused and worthwhile rejects. The same can be said for Alone as well. It’s not perfect, but it never ties to be. It shows Rivers Cuomo disarmed and open, doing what he loves. Sometimes it succeeds marvelously. Sometimes it fails. Ultimately though, it’s human, and for all the people who wrote off Cuomo as a navel-gazing songwriter, Alone serves as a welcome revelation.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/rivers-cuomo-alone/