Announced in 2019, scheduled for a 2020 release then rescheduled to 2021 for obvious reasons, Weezer‘s 15th album Van Weezer has finally arrived. Fans had a full 12 months to brace themselves for what the band promised to be a metal/hard rock album that took them “back to big guitars”, but no one needn’t have worried. Weezer’s frontman Rivers Cuomo has been rather public about his appreciation for all things thrashing and shredding. As far back as 2002, there was a t-shirt available at their merch stand where the four band members posed in homage to the cover of Van Halen’s Women and Children First. Besides, all it takes is one spin of Van Weezer to realize that these ten songs could not be mistaken for anyone other than Weezer. You can’t be an active rock band for 27 years and counting without getting your stamp all over any pasture ventured, be it old or new.
Anybody charting the band’s overall progress will be curious to know what kind of attitude Van Weezer takes. Is this the Weezer that takes small artistic gambles as they did with Maladroit, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, select moments from 2008’s eponymous Red, and January’s surprise release of OK Human? Or is it the fun and frivolous Weezer that dominates much of their 21st-century output? It’s the latter. Van Weezer takes itself as seriously as the band takes itself. Cuomo can preach the gospel of Sabbath with all the sincerity he can summon; there’s still no other way to process Van Weezer than with a tongue planted in a winking cheek somewhere.
When the single “The End of the Game” was released a year ago, it was slotted to be the album’s opening track. Somewhere along the line, it swapped places with Van Weezer’s second single, “Hero”, but I think they got it right the first time. “The End of the Game” packs a great deal of the album’s intentions in the first 30 seconds. There’s the “Eruption”-esque grand entrance followed by Pat Wilson pounding his drum kit, an extra chunky rhythm guitar part leading up to squealing pick harmonics, and we’re off to the first verse. By the time Cuomo sings, “Hey Suzy, where you been today? / I’m looking for you every way,” the metal takes a back seat to the sun-kissed days of the Green Album. “The melody can’t find you / I’m incomplete without you / I guess we’ve reached the end of the game,” goes the chorus in all its epic grandeur.
What makes “Hero” such a curious choice as the new opener is the sadsack embrace of middle age that offsets the dangerously optimistic love story in “The End of the Game”. “When I was a kid, I thought I’d save the world / Running ’round and chasing all the criminals / Swinging on a web, flying in the sky / Shooting lasers from my eyes” — is followed by this rather gloomy wake-up call: “But now I know it never was my destiny / It’s not my place in life, not who I’m meant to be / And I don’t need the glory, I don’t need the fame / And I don’t wanna wear this cape.” In case you thought there was room for Cuomo to change his mind, he assures the listener in the chorus that he walks alone, without the need of a hero.
The third and fourth singles, “Beginning of the End” and “I Need Some of That”, rely much more on pop than on metal, with lyrics to remind us all of just how awesome rock music can truly be. “Nostradamus predicted a bomb would drop / And all our guitars will be humming in old pawn shops / Watch us brush off the dust, in heavy metal we trust / Then kick back and read The Sunday Times.” The shamelessly enormous chorus to “I Need Some of That” seems especially fond of the time when jocks, cheerleaders, and metalheads alike could all rock out to Bon Jovi without a trace of guilt.
Van Weezer‘s second half is a bit hit-and-miss. The Metallica aping of “1 More Hit” puts the good times on hold in favor of… drug withdrawal? “I shake, I sweat / I’m writhing in the bed / For just a puff, just a little spike.” True, this is the same band that had a single named “We Are All on Drugs”, but it’s not hard to wish that Cuomo would have put a little more work into a chorus that begins with the lines “Pump it up into me / Please daddy, please daddy.” While the amped-up power-pop of “Sheila Can Do It” comes genuinely close to recapturing the sound of the band’s 1990s sound, “She Needs Me” sounds like something Cuomo dashed off while in a coma. And did he really appropriate nearly all the music of “Crazy Train” just to write “Blue Dream”, a song where the protagonist talks to an octopus after being rejected by a girl?
The album closes with “Precious Metal Girl”, an acoustic number that has landed on Van Weezer by virtue of its title and imagery: “Look like you could’ve been in Faster Pussycat / In your leather jacket with the patches on the back.” Think less Extreme’s “More Than Words” and more “Time Flies” from 2010’s Hurley.
The debate of old “classic” Weezer versus new “hipper” Weezer, as illustrated by a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Leslie Jones and Matt Damon, became hackneyed long ago. It behooves us to stop looking for a new Blue Album or Pinkerton, so the question we must pose to each new Weezer release is, Does it succeed on its own terms? In the case of Van Weezer, the answer isn’t clear. It’s too patchy to be a Yes but far too tuneful and breezy to be a No. For our purposes, let’s call it a draw and wait for the next one. Knowing Weezer, it shouldn’t be too long a wait.