Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Weezer: A Retrospective

Review: The Red Album

I'm a bad Weezer fan, I admit it. I didn't even know that there was a new Weezer album until I saw some scrappy looking guys on an MTV commercial and thought, "hey, those guys sound sort of like Weezer." Turns out, I was right. They were hyping their third self-titled album in six tries with their oddly named single "Pork and Beans". The first two self-titleds were their greatest successes, spaced roughly seven years apart; why not try it again, seven years later?

My experience with Weezer is an extensive one ranging over that second seven-year period, dating back to when I first figured out what sorts of music I liked. My very first forays into musical taste were Weird Al and baroque. The Weird Al period was fun, and everybody should have one, but I think I sort of outgrew the shtick. And I still like baroque and prefer it to any other classical, but my musical tastes have expanded considerably. Besides, baroque isn't per se a band. Coming into 8th, 9th grade, the first three bands I could consider myself a fan of were Creed, Rammstein, and Weezer. These are entirely different bands—generic rock, bordering on Christian; German "dance-metal"; and geek-rock meets emo—a diversity of taste that I try and still maintain today.

I don’t listen to much Creed anymore, except for when my iPod decides I need to hear "My Sacrifice" or "Faceless Man" on shuffle (the former happened as recently as last week). Then again, with the band's demise a few years ago, it's not like there's terribly much Creed to listen to these days anyway. I still keep up with Rammstein—there's nothing like it if I want some ridiculous driving industrial. Over the years, though, I've found there's less and less keeping me coming back to Rammstein—where I'm usually content with a band doing the same thing over several albums (as long as it stays good), Rammstein has been doing the same thing for so long that they might benefit from a drastic change. Or maybe it's just that I listened to Mutter so many times in the year 2002 that I finally reached some sort of saturation years down the road.

I discovered Weezer in a Newsweek article that was about the band's resurgence in producing the Green Album, the second self-titled (the first was the Blue). The article described what sorts of things the band sang about: the X-Men, playing roleplaying games in their basement, going on vacation, wishing they could drop everything to go surfing, and most importantly what they'd love to, but can't, find in a girl. Clearly, these are all things that a somewhat geeky fifteen year old can relate to. So in 2001 I decided to buy both the Blue and Green albums. (The article also touched on Pinkerton, Weezer's second album, which vanished into obscurity between the Blue and Green. But it didn't have very nice things to say about either the album itself or fan reactions to it, so I decided to pass on that one.)

And they were really, really good. Blue was a bit grittier, a nice helping of angst along with distorted guitar riffs, and it was where Weezer first established its unabashed geek-rock base. Green was peppy, on the verge of pop, and it couldn't help but make you think of nice, warm things like summer and the beach (especially when they started talking about Islands in the Sun). Despite those distinctions, they very much sounded like the products of the same band, so much so that I began to associate the two in my mind into one aggregate idea of "what Weezer sounds like". And over the next several years, I couldn't get enough of it.

A couple years later, 2003 saw the release of Maladroit, a heavier, louder take on the concept established in the first couple CDs. I didn't like it at first. I had that idea of what the band was supposed to sound like, and Maladroit conflicted with it. However, sometime since then, maybe around 2005, that album grew on me. Though I don't hold it in as high esteem as the Blue or Green, I recognize it today as a good CD. I say "maybe 2005" because that's when we got Make Believe, undoubtedly the worst in the discography. Upon figuring out how bad it was, I think I decided to re-evaluate my stance on Maladroit. As for Make Believe, between the strained efforts of the radio-overplayed "Beverly Hills" and the proclamation that "We Are All on Drugs", I started to wonder if Weezer might be too.

Despite their stances on whether Blue or Green was better, or if Pinkerton was any good at all, a huge majority of listeners held the opinion that Make Believe wasn't worth the CD it was burned onto. After a couple-year hiatus, Weezer returned to the strategy that had already paid dividends seven years earlier: return to a colored self-titled album. And so in 2008 we get the Red Album.

A lot has changed for this band since their would-be Buddy Holly days. Sleeve-worn hearts, black-rimmed glasses, and four guys standing around against a monochromatic background have given way to lyrics about being old, weird trucker hats, and… four guys standing around against a monochromatic background. "We're a whole lot different now," the band seems to say, "but hey, we're still just four guys playing some rock music. And you like us for that."

The important question, though, is what sort of rock music? From the onset of the album, it's clear that Weezer isn't out to please anyone. It's obliquely hinted to when the first track is called "Troublemaker". It's thematically obvious when you hear the second, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived". And it's finally explicitly stated in the third, "Pork and Beans", when Weezer says outright that they're not out to please us.

It's become a rock band cliché to release a "this is an album that we wrote for us" album after they've reached a certain veteran status. In fact, it's become such a cliché that I can't think of any examples of them. But you know what I'm talking about. A band is known for doing one thing, and doing it well. Suddenly, it takes a complete change of course on the latest album. When confronted with criticism from fans or the media, the band casually replies "we just decided to make this a project that we wanted to do, and we hoped our fans would like it too." This raises a question: has the band been doing something it didn't really want to do for all these years?

So whether us fans like it or not—literally—we're stuck with this album that Weezer clearly intended for Weezer. It might work for Weezer, but does it work for a fan or listener? As an album, not really. The songs are disjointed, and there's really no common stylistic theme that unites them all. I'm not asking for "Weezer does concept album" here, merely for "Weezer writes eleven songs that sound good together." They've done that before, several times. One of the oddest parts of the album is when other members of the band besides Rivers Cuomo insist on singing—I'd remind them only that the Beatles fell apart after Ringo started to sing.

Of course, no discussion of the Red Album is complete without more talk about "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived". This is Weezer's shot at theme and variation, and it's a doozy. It starts with Rivers trying some white boy rap, features several generic-rock sections and a few overly-dramatic snare drum sections, and even includes a contrapuntal vocal thing about halfway through. When writing theme and variation, the most important consideration is "are out variations distinct and interesting enough that you want to listen to all of them?" In this song, the answer isn't always yes. But I at least have to give major points for creativity.

Elsewhere in the album, it seems like Weezer has chosen to do a retrospective of themselves. There's Blue Album grit, Green Album pop, and Maladroit distortion. They pay tribute to some of their favorite rock songs (and presumptive influences) in "Heart Songs", and with that comes an irony I can't help but pounce on. That Newsweek article I read, the one that introduced me to Weezer in the first place, praised the band for "looking like Buddy Holly when everyone else wanted to look like Kurt Cobain" and being okay with that conception of themselves. "Heart Songs" has a prominent section dedicated to none other than 1991's seminal grunge album In Utero. No way Weezer did that on purpose; doubtful that any of the band remembers that statement in the article anyway. I'll again give some credit to Weezer, this time for unabashedly acknowledging their influences, whether they be from seventeen or thirty-seven years ago.

The Red Album has songs that would have felt in place on any of Weezer's previous albums. It has some that are right at home on the Red Album. And it has a few that are simply out of place, no matter where you put them. That's especially true when the album gets way too dark and fatalistic in the last few tracks and starts talking about death. While it's definitely not an instant hit, a la the Blue and Green Albums, it's not an instant failure a la Make Believe either. I can see it growing on me like Maladroit or fading like Pinkerton. And it should be interesting to see how I remember the Red Album next time the occasion comes around to do a Weezer retrospective.

Currently listening: "Canzon A 12", Giovanni Gabrieli

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