Weezer have just put out a new track, “Back to the Shack”. The Red Album is six years old, so it must be time for the band to trot out another back to the roots effort. I love this band, and I do actually like “Back to the Shack” but it’s probably safe to approach this with some cynicism.
Conventional wisdom holds that Weezer is a band making sometimes enjoyable but bland music, which pales in comparison to their early brilliant work. They are essentially The Simpsons of power pop bands–wonderful and popular in the ’90s but shadows of what they were in their prime. Much like their animated counterpart, Weezer have amassed a dedicated fan base, which loves to lament the current conditions of things while simultaneously attempting to cull highlights from recent efforts. Of course, fans flocking to early work is an almost universal occurrence.
I was thinking about some of Weezer’s earlier, lauded output today, and some truths about the band dawned on me. In hindsight some of their early work is probably praised too thoroughly, and their third and fourth albums are dismissed too quickly. The mythology surrounding the work is actually absurd in my opinion. Also, many of the idiosyncrasies, which now get the band mocked have been present all along. Plus, given the band’s producer and strong start, their decline should have been obvious from the start.
- In retrospect, Ric Ocasek producing an excellent debut album was sort of ominous
Ric Ocasek is most famous for being the front man for the awesome new wave band The Cars. The Cars debut is so loaded with hits that even members of The Cars joke it’s essentially a greatest hits collection. Nothing in The Cars’ discography comes close to matching the quality of their debut, which is sort of disconcerting, because Ocasek produced Weezer’s eponymous debut. The album, called The Blue Album by fans, was an absolute smash hit and contains many of Weezer’s best songs. Although, I personally feel Weezer did go on to create other good, or even excellent, albums, Ocasek’s involvement seems like foreshadowing in hindsight.
- Weezer’s first four albums are their first two albums done twice
I’m a big fan of Weezer’s self-titled album produced by Ocasek. The one referred to by a color. You know, the album with the ode to vacations. The one with the outrageously catchy song with lots of background “Ohhs.” The one with a falsetto-voiced genre pastiche.
The Blue Album and The Green Album, the band’s third album, have all of the above in common. Both were produced by The Cars’ lead singer and the songs referenced are “Holiday”, “Island in the Sun”; “Buddy Holly”, “Photograph” and “Surf Wax America”, “Hash Pipe” respectively.
Pinkerton and Maladroit differ quite a bit, but are both follow a similar premise: imagine Weezer, but through a different, harsher rock subgenre prism. Pinkerton is Weezer’s grunge album, and Maladroit is Weezer’s cheesy metal album. Both are phenomenal guitar records, and neither record sold particularly well. Both albums are highly regarded now.
I love all four of these albums, but Weezer basically found two winning formulas and worked them twice before returns totally diminished.
- The Hip-Hop appropriation has been there from the beginning
There was definitely some negativity when Weezer teamed up with Lil Wayne for “I Can’t Stop Partying“, and before that the rap featured in the lengthy suite “I am the Greatest Man that Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)” was met with mixed responses but mostly harsh snickering. This absolutely boggles my mind. Sure these songs were cheesy, and Rivers Cuomo has no business rapping, but he’s been doing it from the very beginning. “Buddy Holly”, the band’s signature song, starts off with the lyrics, “What’s with these homies dissing my girl/ what do they have to front?”; There is a Public Enemy quote in Pinkerton‘s “El Scorcho” and “Dope Nose” on Maladroit references busting rhymes. Weezer’s songs have included lame use of Hip-Hop lyricism from the very beginning, for some reason it’s only laughable now.
- Return of the Rentals and Pinkerton are probably better combined than Songs from the Black Hole would have been.
There is a lost Weezer concept album/ rock opera, which is speculated to be amazing. It’s one of their bizarrely numerous similarities to The Beach Boys. The album was going to be called Songs from the Black Hole, SFTBH, and it was going to be a space opera allegory for the band’s sudden meteoric rise. For a variety of reasons, the album never came out, and if Wikipedia is correct, only three demo copies of it exist. However, because many of the songs intended for the album were either used on Pinkerton or have been released as b-sides or rarities, fans have cobbled together their own copies of SFTBH, and it’s generally underwhelming. The rough mixing of many of the tracks is to blame for this, but somehow a geeky Weezer space opera is not as wonderful as you might expect.
One of the events frequently cited as contributing to the non-release of SFTBH was Matt Sharp’s formation of The Rentals and the subsequent release of Return of the Rentals, ROTR. There’s probably some truth to this. The Rentals’ album definitely mines the same sonic terrain as some of Pinkerton‘s wonderful b-sides. Plus, ROTR is a pseudo-concept album about a band reunion that inexplicably features a lot of imagery related to space and robotics. Furthermore, Sharp and Cuomo have a rocky relationship, and Cuomo has cryptically hinted that ROTR derailed the project in the past. Cuomo has also called the incredible song Only in Dreams, “Gay, gay Disney gay,” in the past, so his online statements are best taken with a grain of salt. This kerfuffle often overshadows the quality of The Rentals’ off kilter debut.
ROTR is an awesome, delightful synth-rock record. It isn’t life changing, but it’s hummable, catchy and weird. It also spawned a modest radio hit with “Friends of P”. Considering the stature of Pinkerton, it doesn’t seem like the legend surrounding SFTBH is totally deserved. It might not ever exist in a truly finished form, but it also may have been a disaster that spread Weezer too thin, and in its place are one of the best albums of the ’90s and a goofy, solid pop album. I think it’s a fair trade.