Weezer’s latest record is pure escapism, a pop synthesis of stray sonic elements that reaffirms River’s place as the reigning rock romantic.
It’s almost unfathomable to believe, but Weezer has continued to sustain themselves as a cultural entity for almost three decades since the release of their debut album — a period of time which has seen the group transition further and further away from the grungier elements of their starting sound and into a more commercial lane. Their progression into pop can be best understood by one of their most infamous tracks, “Can’t Stop Partying,” first released as an acoustic demo on frontman Rivers Cuomo’s Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, then later re-tooled as a hip-hop flavored rock crossover with a Lil Wayne feature (“Okay bitches, Weezer and it’s Weezy”). The new version of this song took Jermaine Dupri’s already dubious lyrics — “Just follow the smoke; they’re bringing bottles of the Goose/And all the girls in the corner getting loose” — and infused them with an even greater sense of Brechtian disconnect between intention and effect, essentially signaling that they were in on how ridiculous the entire thing was, while also playing into a certain cultural understanding of their personas up to that time. In short, it was Weezer “selling out” again and then taking it in stride; sure, it was ironic and a lot of good fun, but once again showed how confident the band was at the time, destroying all critical goodwill they had built up.
In hindsight, this was probably for the best: Cuomo and Co. have, in the past decade, proven themselves far better as pop practitioners than they were at making incel bait during the ’90s. Their two separate releases from this year, January’s OK Human and May’s Van Weezer, help validate this argument: While both stand on opposite sides of the musical spectrum, they share enough of the same structural DNA to be comparable as well-modulated exercises in late style. The former is a collection of baroque pop recorded with a full orchestra, which was started in early 2019 and then shelved, only to be picked back up during quarantine; the latter, an homage to ’80s hair-metal and hard-rock, was conceived earlier, but was rushed to coincide with a massive 2020 summer tour planned with Green Day and Fall Out Boy. They were made alongside one another, and together show a natural maturation in Weezer’s songwriting abilities and ambitions. They form something of a contrasting diptych for the band, one that’s often silly and sincere in equal spades — in other words, a modern Weezer album.
Take the first three tracks on OK Human, where each piece is thoroughly conceptualized and constructed on its own terms, yet are together able to cohere into a grander tapestry of existential crisis. The instrumental choices here — the swelling cellos on “Grapes of Wrath,” the harmonious violin section on “Aloo Gobi” — never sacrifice the group’s consistently catchy melodies, and function and groove in similar fashion to their current material. While the album’s production is lavish and glossy, the songwriting is personal and withdrawn, resulting in some of the band’s most authentic and relatable musings on the precariousness of modern living. Cuomo’s perspective on Covid life can on occasion drift into cliché (people are on their phones too much, living with your immediate family kinda sucks) and opener “All My Favorite Songs” is a bit mopey, but he expresses enough raw earnestness that it feels less like a state of the union on How We Live, and more like a look at one man’s musical inspirations as coping mechanism, the latter embraced fully on penultimate “Here Comes the Rain,” a sunny ode to optimism during hard times. He then calls out for help on “La Brea Tar Pits” — “I don’t want to die ’cause there’s still so much to give” — ending the album with a hopeful gesture: one desperate hand reaching for another, understanding the need for human connection when we continue to be further isolated from the world around us.
Van Weezer, on the other hand, is pure escapism, fueled by the same type of bratty Rock Band-esque cosplay Machine Gun Kelly has been engaging with for half a year now. There are riffs and solos abound, songs about never growing up, some cringe lyrics asking for “one more hit” from “daddy”; it’s a record devoid of any relationship to current reality, like the events of the past year never actually happened. Given what’s being attempted here, this is probably the best way to proceed: We’re here for sticky melodies, some dumb fun, and an excuse to act like any of this music isn’t deeply uncool. There are a couple of slick and obvious interpolations, in case you couldn’t immediately tell the influences here — “Crazy Train” has its iconic opening repurposed on “Blue Dream,” a cheese-filled move on an album that could charitably be described as knowingly cheesy; “All The Good Ones” borderline steals the same basic stomp-stomp-clap-pause beat of “We Will Rock You” — but this is still River’s show, and his synthesis of all these stray sonic elements never stops being enjoyable to some degree. It’s a dream project that’s been fully realized by one of rock’s most adamant romantics, a man who once thought it was acceptable to pen a song about how much he loved an 18-year old (or was she 14…) who has confidently grown into his own much beyond such juvenile antics.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 3.