Friday, June 06, 2008

Weezer: Better Red Than Dead?



Over at The Onion AV Club, the hipsters on the Red Album review thread have been going to town attacking Weezer -- post-Pinkerton in general, the Red Album in particular. (Yes, I am sure that is not the only place on the internet where this is happening.) I tend to be more forgiving of Weezer's late period output, probably because I am in truth a second generation Weezer fan. Someone my age really should have boarded the train back at the Blue Album station, but in high school I was too nerdy even for nerd rock. I was not cool enough to realize I could enrich my angst through contemporary music, and mostly just listened to oldies stations and movie soundtracks. Many was the time I sat in my car nodding with recognition to "another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody..." Okay, this is getting sad. The point is in high school, my Weezer exposure amounted to:

- Watching the "Buddy Holly" video on a friend's computer when he first got Windows 95. I remember liking the song and the video. I think I eventually sampled the rest of the album at Borders but was not won over enough to buy it.

- Seeing somebody holding a Pinkerton CD in class. I think they might have been saying something along the lines of how it wasn't as good as the first one.

I didn't really catch on to Weezer until college, when Napster let me get into it for free, and Squelch sing-alongs taught me the importance of "El Scorcho" among others. Around that time, the Green Album came out. Everyone said it wasn't as deep as Pinkerton, but Cuomo was quoted in interviews stating that it wasn't intended to be, and that was good enough for me. Since I was only getting into Pinkerton retroactively, the change didn't bother me at all. Green was a lot of fun, and I happened to be playing it a lot when I first began dating Stephanie, so it has a lot of significance to me personally.

I thought Maladroit was really good, too. I listened to it all summer when I was taking classes in LA, and it only got better with repeated listens.

Admittedly, Make Believe is the weakest offering in their catalogue. I haven't been compelled to revisit it since it came out and I don't have any particularly fond memories of it. "Beverly Hills" was okay at first but hasn't held up well, and I found myself getting embarrassed whenever I listened to it while driving around L.A., especially when I happened to pass through Beverly Hills. I gave Make Believe another listen yesterday, and with virtually every song, my thought was the same: "Oh, that's on this album?" The tracks all have a distinctively Weezer feel, but none stand out. Any of them would be fine as a filler track on a better album that offered at least a few compelling reasons to exist, but Make Believe is nothing but. Nothing is terrible, but nothing is all that good, either, leaving an album that is the definition of mediocre.

Even so, I'm coming at the Red Album from the point of view that Weezer has one weak album to overcome rather than three. So how do I feel about Red? it's complicated.

The album is weird. Ultimately it is maybe not entirely good. But unlike the hipsters who accuse Rivers Cuomo of becoming a soulless machine who refuses to open up in his music and is just making a trip back to the well when in need of a paycheck, I don't think Weezer can be faulted for a lack of ambition.

Red is unique, and characterized by many things: A tongue-in-cheek arrogance (seemingly representing Cuomo's response to his critics), themes of maturity, adult responsibility, kids, parenthood, reflection on one's life, musicianship itself, and finally, a spirit of experimentation. The album was recorded in three separate sessions under three different producers: Rick Rubin, Jackknife 1, and Weezer. Oddly, Rubin and Jackknife's tracks retain the distinctive Weezer feel, while the band's self-produced tracks don't feel like Weezer at all. This strange split makes Red feel like two separate albums -- by two separate bands.

The first half contains Rubin and Jackknife's tracks, and feels like a Weezer album. Not only that, it feels like an especially promising, even great Weezer album. It kicks off strong with "Troublemaker," which introduces the album's themes. Yes, it's about being a rock star, and emblematic of that inevitable point musicians seem to reach where their music ceases to be about common experience and becomes about itself. But it also touches on childhood, growing up, family, and all the other themes that the album returns to again and again. Yes, it feels like an arrogant fuck-you to critics, but if Weezer can be this much fun while settling scores, so be it.

Next, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" keeps the boastfulness going, while introducing experimental elements that are fun but don't detract from the band's signature sound. In the context of the album, "Pork and Beans" feels less generic and more like a part of a whole, and its consideration of aging -- the references to Rogaine, gaining weight, and losing one's cool -- feel more significant.

"Heart Songs" is sappy. It's almost embarrassingly simple, but it feels sincere and is hard to hate in spite of itself. "Everybody Get Dangerous" picks things up again with a badass, driving riff and lyrics about fucking shit up in the retarded ways that only bored teenagers can. But while it seems at first to be ironic -- only in these teenagers' minds was this stupid stuff "dangerous" and badass -- it turns out not to be. By the final verse, it's clear that we're looking back on this through the eyes of someone not just older and wiser, but someone with a distinctively parental point of view. The final question -- of how to react when one's kid wants to "get dangerous" is honestly the kind of thing you only take seriously when you actually have a kid yourself. Hearing the song through this lens of parental worry puts a bit of a damper on it, as parental worry tends to do, but if you can ignore that, it's still a solid song.

"Dreamin'" is where things start to turn. But I've gone on long enough for now, so more on that later.

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