To say the Weezer brand has tarnished in the quarter century since the band’s major label debut first requires acknowledging that Weezer is a brand. This thought was not necessarily the first impression made on listeners taken with the band’s first studio album, Weezer (1994), at the time of its release. That album is widely remembered for the fond and meaningful personal associations listeners shared with the perfectly calculated package that the band seemed to have arrived with all at once. It was a supremely melodic brand of guitar rock with humorous, popular culture-informed lyrics and innovative, ironic music videos that served as an emotional corrective against and amid grimmer strains of alternative rock music.
Weezer’s ascendancy began a month after Kurt Cobain died. Lead singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo, bassist Matt Sharp, drummer Patrick Wilson, and then-newest member, guitarist Brian Bell created another LP together in 1995-96. That album, Pinkerton (1996), is remembered as a classic too caustic for its time. Pinkerton, with less radio-friendly production values and knottier, more introspective lyrics, killed much of the buzz around the good-time band that had capitalized on a demand it helped to create: for something unselfconsciously fun on MTV.
That was then. Now, how fitting it is that Weezer (Black Album) arrives in the wake of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (2018), a film that flays myths of 1990s popular culture. The film is bloated to a fault, but its narrative of detection/misdirection coalesces with a theme about a sinister plot to create an illusion of choice and meaning in the lives of people who chart their lives through pop songs. Under the Silver Lake involves the possibility that any personal connection an individual feels with a cultural product, is ruined by the reality of the system that brought the product to their attention in the first place. This is a film that extends a black pill for viewers to ingest even as the filmmaker cautions them about trusting in media. Weezer (Black Album) might as well be a tie-in soundtrack for the film’s shadowy conspiracy.
For most of Weezer’s existence, that is to say since reemerging in 2001, the band has aligned with popular cultural currents rather than offered any sort of inventive alternative to them. The benefits to the band are many, including squillions of streams, views, sales, and dollars. Weezer has occupied every conceivable space on a spectrum from acquiescing to the appetite for an empty, disposable product to leading the pack and creating the slipstream. Recent covers album Weezer (Teal Album) was both born from memes and designed to sate the appetite for reheating new helpings of other bands’ hits of yesteryear. The underlying theme to all of this activity appears to be a wish fulfilled. That is to have a reset button for relevance that can be pushed an endless number of times. The popularity of Teal and Black singles proves that the button is still working.
But to what end? Cuomo’s profile as a songwriter has forever been wrapped in layers of humor, irony, and fabrication. But that mode seems to have overtaken him so fully that any moment of seriousness or vulnerability as a songwriter now seems like the product of a boy who cries wolf or, in light of his maturing in age, like Hale & Pace‘s “man who can’t take anything seriously”.
“Can’t Knock the Hustle” uses shifting dynamics and a manufactured nod to diverse musical influences, practically daring the listener to make accusations of cultural/artistic appropriation. Cuomo deploys youthful slang and references to modernity with no seeming intent apart from catching the listener’s ear with product placement. Perhaps Cuomo is attempting to comment on disposability, on the certainty of a song like this being frozen to a quickly passing moment. Yet the Black Album is not being marketed as parody or satire so that reading is likely baseless.
The reggae-folk-electronic-pop hybrid “Zombie Bastards” is evidence that Cuomo’s lyrical character assumes the perspective of a young person with the world ahead of them. The song plays as an empowerment anthem for modern teens, but the anthem offers no uplift. Once again, it is possible that the hollowness of the song is the point—as if to say, as in Night of the Living Dead, that young people might feel capable of saving the day, but they will die for that certainty.
“High As a Kite” (the only worthwhile song on the album) pivots toward classicism. From a “Strawberry Letter 23” introduction to the unmistakable extended reference to “Whiter Shade of Pale”, the song appears strategically placed to reel in listeners with older musical associations. Midway through the song, Cuomo sings “let me play this game for children and vanish into the atmosphere”, apparently laying out a thesis for how the album baits and deceives youth, both as a subject and as an audience.
There are moments when Cuomo appears to confront his own aging and diminishing condition. “Too Many Thoughts in My Head”, which brings Black Album‘s middle section to a close, includes an interesting stretch of lyrics that begins with “I never wanted to be lonely / I never thought that life would turn out like this / I never thought that I’d feel empty.” It ends with proclaiming, “Dumb thoughts with a dumb program / I need a little more, a little more RAM.” If this expression is Cuomo behind a character, then the sentiment is at least welcome for the contrast it provides with the drugs/sugar/lover pleasure procession that fills the rest of the songs. If this expression is Cuomo the human being, then it’s more provocative for the question it raises about why his career pursuits don’t respond to his awareness of the void he is perpetuating.
In 2017, ex-Weezer bandmate Matt Sharp, of the Rentals, released a wonderful single that combined many of the same ingredients Black Album possesses, but to a completely different and more successful end. “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” is similarly preoccupied with aging, modernity, technology, and nostalgia, and while the song includes no small measure of humor, the execution is full of genuine human longing and feeling. Sharp appears as unafraid to produce something that approaches beauty as Cuomo is to shy away from the same. As such, that one single by the Rentals aims toward the techno-anxiety genius of Jason Lytle, while Cuomo’s outfit shrinks to the low ambition of phoned-in karaoke over plastic keyboard preloads.
Black Album ends with a trio of songs in successive heretical modes. As a tribute to the late Prince, “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” insults its honoree with throwaway musical value. The inclusion of Prince as a subject also brings to mind a particular disparity of music industry rewards. Ween, a band that was a 1990s major label contemporary with Weezer (and both filed under W at record stores, no less) spent decades paying legitimate, musically adept, and funny respect to Prince’s musical legacy and enjoyed only a fraction of the sales of Weezer, a band that offers a lifeless tribute after the artist’s death.
In “Byzantine”, Cuomo contends with his own songwriting history. He calls back to the 1996 reference to Green Day in “El Scorcho” by becoming the unreliably unaware music fan he once regarded with suspicion, singing “I’d never heard of Sparks before / But I’m so glad you shared them with me.” “California Snow” involves Judas and Jesus as punchlines, punctuated with “Woo!” chants, closing the album even more bereft of songwriting/creative imagination than the manner in which it began.
Weezer was always a brand, and their songs were always products. It could be argued, though, that for a few good years, those were not the band’s essential features. One of the most excellent Weezer songs of that era was “Jamie”, a relatively lo-fi recording that nonetheless had plenty of music business bona fides. The subject of “Jamie” was the band’s former lawyer and the song appeared on 1994 major label compilation DGC Rarities Vol. 1. Despite those markers of industry success, “Jamie” was and is a song composed and performed with a spirit of youthful volatility and an undeniable emotional investment — a most human energy — within the performance. In contrast, the Weezer of Black Album makes songs about youth without sounding human.
Under the Silver Lake expresses a vision of the music industry in which an elite head supplies the hands of consumers with songs that they foolishly believe shape the direction of their hearts. But against that hopelessness we could choose to believe something closer to the lasting epigram of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927): “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” The flaws of Black Album are that the album has no heart, and it makes no attempt to recognize the hearts of its audience. As with the “men without chests” that C.S. Lewis wrote about in The Abolition of Man, the removal of the heart results in a directionless product, content to have no ideals, to take nothing seriously, and to risk nothing on absolutes. Black Album lurches forward bloodlessly, with no clear direction but the sensation of the moment, which is always expiring. There’s no getting this zombie back on track.