Bringing up Weezer in a musical discussion is a lot like picking up chicks in a chat room – it is of the utmost importance that you find out their age before you start showing your boner. Be warned, if you approach a minor and proudly state that Weezer is part of your regular rotation, the response will be “Oh, really?” and an accompaniment of embarrassed laughter. Then she’ll run off and tell all her friends about how small your selection is. In fact, there may be some of you out there in Readerland right now that only know Weezer as the band that the awkward guy in B.O.B.’s music video used to be in. This is a saddening thought, but understandable. Weezer is the kind of band that is readily played at parties, and every time a song like ‘Buddy Holly’ comes on, the room explodes into a cheer of nostalgic joy; however the cheer and volume of the radio drop drastically if something comes on that they wrote in the past ten years. Seriously, nothing stops a party like ‘Can’t Stop Partying,’ and the irony is thicker than the rims of Rivers’ glasses. So how did a band that was so influential, so endearing, and so genuinely good become the sonic equivalent of a fart in the mouth? This series is going to break down Weezer’s albums in chronological order, in order to chronicle the breakdown of a once great rock band. Essentially, we are going to look at how Weezer went from this to this.
We begin with one of the best albums of the ‘90s, Weezer (The Blue Album).
There is no question of whether or not this album is good. It’s very good. But asking people why will yield you incredibly varied responses. Some swear that this album was important because it showed bands how to be fun again; that in a musical era defined by grunge, nobody was willing to make music that you could dance to. Some proclaim that this album was important because the lyrics and vocals of Cuomo (and the backups of Sharp) would become heavy influences in the emo scene years later. Some say that this album caused earthquakes by giving nerds all over the world orgasms simultaneously. In truth, The Blue Album was all of these things, but what really made them endearing was sympathy.
Weezer was, to say the least, self-deprecating. They gave themselves an asthmatic name, wrote songs about Dungeons & Dragons, and Rivers Cuomo looked like this:
They knew they were uncool, and they were proud of it. But under the awkward and sweaty veneer of “It’s cool to be a nerd!” lay genuine sadness. What made Weezer special was their ability to tell depressing stories while sounding like they were throwing the party of the year. They were poppy, they were fun, and they never seemed to take themselves seriously, but they were like the kid in high school that would make fun of himself, just so the other kids wouldn’t get to him first. Before continuing, I should point out that the following analysis is not necessarily one that Rivers and Co would agree with. But I don’t care. The lyrics project the following feelings and ideas whether the band wants them to or not, and it is one of the reasons that I love this album.
The Blue Album reflects this dichotomy of cheery, fun-loving instrumentals and frustrated, painful lyrics at every turn; and it does it with style. The album is structured with duality in mind. It is built out of companion songs (one with a feel-good vibe and one garnished with melancholy) that are bracketed by the mood-establishing opener and closer.
The first pairing is ‘No One Else’ and ‘The World Has Turned and Left Me Here.’ The first track is told from a perspective of unabashed selfishness and insensitivity. In short, the guy sounds like a douche bag. The speaker paints an amusing, but clearly unflattering image of his girlfriend, stating, “My girl’s got a big mouth with which she blabbers a lot. / She laughs at most anything, whether it’s funny or not.” He goes on to refrain, “I want a girl who will laugh for no one else. / When I’m away, she puts her makeup on the shelf. / When I’m away, she never leaves the house. / I want a girl who laughs for no one else.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s exactly what I mean by a playful song with serious undertones. ‘The World Has Turned and Left Me Here’ acts as a sequel to this song, showing that the speaker is so self-absorbed that he can’t understand why his girl has left him. Rivers laments his abandonment, singing, “The world has turned and left me here, / just where I was before you appeared.” What prevents this song from coming off as a joke are Rivers’ personal and revealing lyrics. The verses are confessional anecdotes that narrate the loneliness of the speaker, the first of which is cut short in mid sentence: “I just made love to your sweet memory / one thousand times in my head. / You said you loved it more than ever, / you said –” This suggests that the memories have become bitter and too painful to follow through with. In addition, the conclusion of the song features brilliantly genuine vocals plaintively asking “Do you believe what I sing now?” This repeated phrase seems to act as a meta-narrative, calling into question the perspective offered in ‘No One Else,’ and preparing the listener for the tumbling, sometimes contradictory, but ultimately human lyrics that continue across the album.
This pair is followed by a similar duo in ‘Buddy Holly’ and ‘Undone – The Sweater Song.’ Just as ‘No One Else’ acts as a set up for ‘The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,’ so too does ‘Buddy Holly’ for ‘Undone.’ The song is a description of a relationship under stress. The speaker makes grand claims towards his girl (“But you know I’m yours, / and I know you’re mine, / and that’s for all time”) and assures her that regardless of the violence and drama surrounding them, that he only cares for her (“I don’t care what they say about us anyway, / I don’t care about that”). The speaker compares himself and his lady to attractive celebrities while pop-fueled guitars and keys provide a hopeful backdrop to their plight, including a brief but awesome battle scene (“Bang! Bang! A knock on the door. / Another big bang and you’re down on the floor”). This bravado and confidence is instantly shattered by ‘Undone,’ as dissonant broken chords create a lethargic and unsettling tone. The verses speak of a man falling apart in his abandonment, and this is echoed in the fragmented and reflective lyrics: “I’m me. / Maybe. / Goddamn, / I am.” This metaphor is carried on and fortified in the chorus: “If you want to destroy my sweater / hold this thread as I walk away. Watch me unravel, I’ll soon be naked. / Lying on the floor, I’ve come undone.” All of the swagger of ‘Buddy Holly’ is washed away and nothing is left but insecurity and frustration. Perhaps nothing makes this clearer than the dialogue that acts as preludes to the verses, which depict the sufferings of superficial relationships by a comically despondent protagonist named Karl. Once again, Weezer uses comedy to draw attention away from the very real pain kept bubbling under the surface.
The trend continues with the next two songs. ‘Surf Wax America’ is a playful song about freedom. The narrative revolves around a man who skips work to go surfing, and with lines like, “I’m going surfing ‘cause I don’t like your face,” the song is slathered in more teenage rebellion than most copies of Playboy. He rejects the confines of work to revel with his friends, claiming “They seem invincible as they surf along.” The surfing motif continues throughout the opening riff of ‘Say It Ain’t So,’ but the effect becomes ironic as the tone quickly becomes downcast. Opposed to the freedom of bucking work, this song focuses on the restriction and isolation of a broken home. The lines are still playful (“Somebody’s Heinie is crowding my icebox. / Somebody’s cold one is giving me chills”) but they sound like the frustrated attempts of a child trying to understand a difficult situation, and they are powerfully backed by aggressively distorted guitars. The drum shots and guitar squeals during the chorus as Rivers sings, “Say it ain’t so. / My love is a life taker,” are the most anguished sounds the album offers.
The final pairing turns towards themes of location. The first song, ‘In the Garage,’ is a loving tribute to the one place in which the speaker feels safe. The speaker describes his various nerdy hobbies with the kind of pride that can only be mustered by the highest caliber of fighter-thieves. With each verse, the image of the speaker is made clearer, and it is one of a self-conscious teenager hiding from the world in a room reserved for ways to get away: “I play my stupid songs, / I write these stupid words, / and I love every one […] In the garage / I feel safe. / No one cares about my ways. / In the garage / where I belong, / no one hears me sing this song.” The following song, ‘Holiday,’ shows that even the garage can become unbearable, and the only sensible thing to do is hit the road. The speaker’s desire to leave is made clear as Rivers repeatedly sings, “Holiday / far away, / to stay, / on a holiday, / far away. / Let’s go today, / in a heartbeat.” The plaintive guitar solo in the opening of the track along with the powerful harmonies during the repetition of “heartbeat” capture the speaker’s urgency and convey it to the audience beautifully.
The two other tracks on the album are the opener and closer, which act as a thematic introduction and conclusion to the album. The opener, ‘My Name is Jonas,’ establishes that the album will be about the difficulties of adolescence: “Come sit next to me. / Pour yourself some tea, / just like grandma made / when we couldn’t find sleep. / Things were better then, / once but never again. / We’ve all left the den. / Let me tell you about it.” The song is bristling with frustration as the speaker talks of toys without batteries, cars that won’t drive, and construction workers that won’t work. It is a perfect lyrical set up for the tales that follow it, while the ascending arpeggios and chipper harmonica riffs begin to establish a false-front before anyone notices what’s happening. The closer, ‘Only in Dreams,’ acts in a similar way, bringing the album to a satisfying conclusion. It is nearly eight minutes of the realisation that things can only be good again in reverie. The verses tell of a woman that the speaker loved while the choruses bring home the reality of his situation: “Only in dreams / we see what it means. / Reach out our hands, / hold on to hers. / But when we wake, / it’s all been erased, / and so it seems, / only in dreams.” The instrumentals back this up perfectly as the twinkly harmonics, plodding guitars, and laidback drums suggest both surreal dreariness and somber defeat. In addition, the careful use of distortion and dissonance function as moments when frustration boils over into flashes of anger that are ultimately impotent, as they fade back into the familiar sounds of sadness.
It is perfectly possible that I have completely misunderstood this album (and I am sure that fans of Rivers’ blog will be the first to point this out to me), but I truly believe that this album captures these themes and produces these narratives whether the band was aware of it or not. Maybe Rivers sat down to write some awesome songs to play at parties and the sadness in his personal life coloured them without his knowledge or intent. Maybe it’s a just a giant coincidence and Weezer was never aware of the emotional strings they were capable of pulling on. If either of these notions were true, it would not surprise me one bit, because their subsequent albums would divide firmly into emotionally engaging and intimate songs, and party anthems more vapid than the drunken ramblings of an American Idol fan. In my upcoming articles, I will go further down the rabbit hole that is Weezer’s devolution as we try to understand how the most awkward kids on the block became the assholes that used to make them cringe.