Alone II follows the template of its rarities-packed predecessor a little too closely, leaving behind it a mish-mash of semi-decent tracks and only a few genuine takeaways.
When we last left Rivers Cuomo, our eternally bespectacled hero, he was in the middle of doing some stately housecleaning.
Following the ho-hum critical response to Weezer's 2005's disc Make Believe, it appeared the Cuomo was at a creative stalemate with himself and was eager to try something new, mainly by revisiting his old demos and polishing some obscure rarities. Though Cuomo had already tried to do some basic odds-and-sods clearing the year prior with the release of the Deluxe Edition of Weezer's debut album, it -- somehow -- just wasn't enough for him. So in 2007, Cuomo went through the piles of demo tapes he had been working on for years, unleashing the cream of the crop as the surprisingly strong compilation album Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, which received a justifiably warm reception.
What we didn't know at the time was that Cuomo was just getting started. Weezer released yet another eponymous album (their third) in 2008 and managed to score one of their biggest hits to date with that disc's lead single "Pork and Beans", a song that -- coincidentally -- was based on a riff that Cuomo discovered during his archive-scrounging. In clearing out his vaults the first time through, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he found enough material to craft a second "rarities" album. What's actually surprising is that Alone II arrives less than a year off the heels of the first Alone, with, you know, a fully-blown Weezer disc sandwiched in the middle. Given his surprisingly prolific tendencies (along with that YouTube write-a-song system he'd been doing with fans, as well as a massive in-store jam session with them the day of Alone II's release), the question must be brought up: what's the more important project in Cuomo's life right now? Weezer or "R.C.: Solo Artist"?
It's impossible for us to say, but the sheer amount of material on this release suggests that Cuomo isn't going to stop writing songs for himself anytime soon. Alone II follows the template of its predecessor pretty closely, featuring yet another short burst of songs from the unreleased Weezer space-opera Songs from the Black Hole, another surprise cover (a terrific rendering of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby"), another early demo of an iconic Weezer song ("Oh Jonas"), and -- of course -- another pseudo hip-hop experiment (the Jermaine Dupri-penned "Can't Stop Partying", here recontextualized as a heartfelt acoustic strummer). Just as before, there are some tracks that are best left unreleased (the pointless tape-altering experiment "Harvard Blues"), a few middling rock numbers ("My Brain is Working Overtime"), and some flat-out stunning left turns (the almost Beatles-esque lo-fi closer "I'll Think About You"). Much as how the first Alone opened with a voice-only acapella experiment, this one opens with another instrumental: the cascading horn sections of "Victory on the Hill", in which Cuomo, as ever, plays all of the parts himself.
In a sense, such a detail as that is exactly what fans are looking for: a genuine insight into Cuomo's ever-perplexing mind. Cuomo doesn't shy away from interviews these days, but he still maintains a certain air of mystique about him. Short of publishing an autobiography or "pulling a Corgan" and detailing every aspect of his life on his blog, these Alone releases are as close as fans are going to get towards gaining a deep understanding about him. "I Admire You So Much" is a short (0:46), heartfelt song that sounds recorded directly into an answering machine. Its lyrics are as clichéd as all get-out, but, somehow, it overcomes such an obvious criticism due to its up-front delivery. In this intimate set of recordings, Cuomo is shying away from the convenience of irony, and he's all the better for it.
In the end, however, Alone II just isn't as strong as the first volume, which contained such jaw-droppingly gorgeous tracks like "Lover in the Snow" and "Crazy One". There are still some great revelations (an early demo of the furious "Paper Face", which appeared in a full-band version on that aforementioned Blue Album Deluxe Edition), but tracks like the acoustic "I Don't Want to Let You Go" and the plodding "I Want to Take You Home Tonight" just lack the punch and energy of Cuomo's best work. Even as a clearing-house release, we've been led to expect more from Weezer's self-conscious leader.
With that said, though, it's a downright puzzle as to how songs like the dynamic, multi-tiered rock epic "The Purification of Water" and the stripped-down piano ballad "My Day is Coming" get left off of Weezer's discs while sophomoric mush like "We Are All on Drugs" and "Heart Songs" somehow make the cut. We could spend days guessing how Cuomo's song-vetting process works, but only he would know for sure. Though there are some definite takeaways to be had, Alone II will probably be more renowned for giving fans more fodder to play armchair psychiatrist than actual insight into Cuomo's songwriting process (though his ever-detailed liner notes certainly help with the latter). Whether or not Cuomo is still a great songwriter today is somewhat debatable. As Alone II proves, however, he will always, always be an interesting one.