review: Weezer sound confused and out of touch on ‘Black Album’
SNL did a skit during the 2018 Christmas episode where Leslie Jones' character argued that Weezer haven't done anything good since Pinkerton, Matt Damon's character argued that they're even better now, and the rest of the characters in the skit were confused as to how anyone could possibly care enough to even have this debate. It was so perfect because that type of scenario really does happen all the time. Chances are, you fall into one of those three categories, and that's part of what makes Weezer so fascinating. You might not care about them at all in 2019, but if you do care, you probably have really strong opinions. The people in the Leslie Jones camp can't imagine listening to anything Weezer have done recently, but Weezer have kept up a pretty steady run of hits on the Alternative and Rock charts so someone is listening. And last year, they finally cracked the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in nearly a decade. It wasn't for a song they wrote (it was for their cover of Toto's "Africa"), but it was a rare feat for any rock band in general in 2018, and it's definitely part of why Weezer seem even bigger now than they did the last time they released a new album. They're headlining Madison Square Garden this year, and they're not only able to do that because of Blue Album and Pinkerton. They're able to do it because the Matt Damons of the world have watched the video for "Feels Like Summer" over six million times.
It's sort of like there are two Weezers. There's Weezer the nostalgia act, who will forever live off the demand for songs that were written roughly a quarter-century ago, and there's the Weezer who is still pushing forward, still trying to do something new and win over new fans. The latter Weezer got off to an okay start with their early 2000s, Matt Sharp-less comeback. Songs like 2001’s "Island in the Sun" and 2005’s "Beverly Hills" didn't sound much like classic Weezer but those songs were massive, and they won over a lot of people who were too young for Weezer the first time around. It was all downhill after "Beverly Hill"s though, and it took a nosedive with the misguided Lil Wayne collaboration on 2009's Raditude and the utterly forgettable 2010 album Hurley. If you thought "Beverly Hills" was cheesy, Raditude was Weezer basically saying "you ain't seen nothin' yet." Weezer hit what seemed like rock bottom with Hurley, but at least there was nowhere to go but up from there. Weezer took four years to make a new album after Hurley (their longest gap between albums since Pinkerton and Green Album), and when they finally did, it seemed like they were ready to give into the Blue/Pinkerton fans, who -- despite how tough it had been -- had stuck with them through everything. 2014's Everything Will Be Alright in the End and 2016's White Album were not-half-bad returns to the kind of driving indie rock that has made Weezer so influential for all these years. They sounded more like the rounded edges of the not-half-bad Green Album than the classic Blue Album and Pinkerton, but there were much worse things Weezer could have been doing. For a minute, it seemed like maybe Weezer finally wanted to be the Weezer that Blue/Pinkerton fans wanted them to be.
And then came 2017's Pacific Daydream. If you don't remember it, maybe it's because your subconscious blacked it out for your conscious' sake. It came just a year after White Album and it's hard to believe that Weezer so quickly reverted back to the lows of the Raditude/Hurley era. Weezer have always been obsessed with The Beach Boys, but Pacific Daydream single "Feels Like Summer" sounded like a shitty EDM-pop band trying to write their own "Kokomo." It is bad. When they revealed plans to follow it this year with Black Album, I thought maybe they'd be making another "return to form" attempt as the "color" albums tend to be -- especially since they're touring with fellow alt-rock nostalgists the Pixies this year -- but Black Album goes further down the Pacific Daydream rabbithole. They brought in a handful of big-time pop songwriters, it's got slick production (even with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek producing), awkward hip hop appropriation, cringeworthy lyrics -- the works. It's almost worse than Raditude because Weezer have gone down that path before and it seemed for a minute like they learned from it. It's impossible to figure out who Weezer are trying to be on this album, and who they're trying to cater to. I can't fault them for wanting to fight off the nostalgia label and push forward -- no matter how unsuccessful their attempts to push forward are -- but are they pushing forward? Most of Black Album sounds like a regression for Weezer, a return to a sound that they already tried and failed at once before.
Most of the worst offenders were released as singles, so if you've been following along with this album rollout, you probably have a pretty good idea of how low Black Album can go. Lead single/opening track "Can't Knock the Hustle" seems to try to answer the question "How much stuff can we appropriate at once?" It can't be a coincidence that it shares its title with a famous Jay-Z song, given the weird attempt at sorta-rapping that Rivers makes in the song. He's been taking influence from rap music ever since using hip hop slang on the first Weezer album, but it used to at least be kind of endearing. Now it just feels like "How do you do, fellow kids?" at best and eye-rolling appropriation at worst. He also borrows Klezmer-like melodies for a hook that he sings in Spanish ("Hasta luego, hasta luego, hasta luego, adios"), and then borrows from '70s funk for the song's main backbone. It's hard to tell if it's supposed to be parody, homage, or both. Whatever he intended, it didn't work... unless the intent was to troll all of us.
Even worse than "Can't Knock the Hustle" is "Zombie Bastards," a brown-sandal-wearing acoustic reggae rock song that brings back more bad memories of 2000s Jack Johnson than 2000s Weezer. Clearly Weezer will stop at nothing to score a hit (even if it means covering Toto), but is there even an audience for this kind of thing anymore? "Living In L.A." sort of recalls the chill-bro alternative rock that Sugar Ray made popular in the late '90s, and there is definitely no way there's still an audience for that. "The Prince Who Wanted Everything" is about a Prince who "tried to save the world with funk rock riffs," so if we're assuming he means that Prince, I think it's safe to say that Prince is rolling in his grave. It's slicked-up, watered-down pop rock that makes "Pork and Beans" sound like Black Flag. "I'm Just Being Honest" almost sounds like it could pass as a cleaned-up version of '90s Weezer revival, but it quickly turns into the kind of '80s pop revival that was better left in the '80s. The worst offender of all, though, is album closer "California Snow." The first time I heard it, I thought my computer started autoplaying some new Post Malone wannabe. "Can't Knock the Hustle" hints at an interest in rap, but "California Snow" tries to be rap in the most embarrassing way, complete with lyrics like "this is the definition of flow" and "nobody cold as this." Hearing him rap it is like the musical equivalent of going out to dinner with an older relative and watching in silence as they're a dick to the waiter all night. It's like, I love you but please, stop.
Rivers & co do sneak in a few gems that should appeal to the longtime fans, the absolute best of which is "High As A Kite." It's a mid-tempo McCartney-esque piano pop song that I could've seen Weezer writing in the early days, or at least on Green Album, and it reminds you that Rivers can write a gorgeous melody when he wants to. It even comes with a music video that reimagines Mister Rogers' Neighborhood with Weezer as the house band, and that should bring you back to a certain classic '90s Weezer video. Weezer have also always been good at borrowing from '60s music, and "Too Many Thoughts In My Head" sees them channelling '60s psychedelic rock in a way they never really have before. It's got wah-heavy lead guitar and Rivers singing with a disaffected coo, and if you can get past him rhyming "Mary Poppins" with "Netflix options," it's actually pretty cool to hear Weezer pull off something like this. It's a welcome nod to some classic Weezer influences on an album that's mostly void of those. Weezer also make a pretty cool move on "Byzantine" by bringing in Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace as a co-writer. The big name pop songwriters they brought in were presumably to score more hits, but bringing in Laura seems like an artistic choice, like when Weezer brought in Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino and Titus Andronicus' Patrick Stickles to co-write on Everything Will Be Alright in the End. You can definitely hear a little of Laura Jane Grace's folk punk blending in with Weezer's usual power pop on this song, and it makes for one of Black Album's finer moments.
A song like "High As A Kite" is a nice break from all the radio-bait, but the good parts of Black Album almost make the whole thing even more frustrating. If they've still got an interest in writing songs that live up to the bar set by Blue Album and Pinkerton, why are they focusing so much on cheeseball songs that are out of their comfort zone? It might be selfish to expect them to keep writing full albums that sound like classic Weezer, but surely there's a compromise to be made between Pinkerton Part 2 and "California Snow." It's painful to hear Weezer spending the bulk of an album on such embarrassing songs because Blue Album and Pinkerton are beloved, life-changing classics for so many people. As with fellow rock giants like Green Day, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Metallica, Weezer's classics are so good that the longtime fans keep coming back for more, hoping Weezer will finally satisfy them again, no matter how many times they've been disappointed. If Black Album was released by some Silent Majority Rock band, a lot of us might not have even batted an eye at it, but it hurts more when you know how far it is from Weezer's full potential.
It's hard to imagine what a true comeback for Weezer would be, but Black Album is definitely not it. It's their most scatterbrained and cringeworthy album since Raditude, and as on that album, it sounds like Weezer just can't figure out where they fit in. Black Album sort of brings together all three opinions from that SNL skit. "High As A Kite" is the song Leslie Jones might nod along to, "California Snow" is the song only Matt Damon would be crazy enough to listen to, and "Living In L.A." sees Weezer sounding like the washed up rock band that everyone else in the skit assumes they are. And yet, it's not even the most unnecessary Weezer album released this year. That would be Teal Album, the album where Weezer tried to capitalize on the "Africa" success and record covers of nine more very popular songs.