What the Hell Happened to Weezer?
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Courtney Love may be Bumbershoot's most obvious cautionary tale, a catastrophic train wreck still helplessly hell-bent on plowing ahead, but beloved 1990s "nerd" rockersturned sad old meme chasers Weezer offer another, perhaps even stranger study in how fame (fame, fatal fame) can play hideous tricks on the rock-star brain. Whereas Love's decline is the stuff of legend, the roots of Weezer's downfall are more obscure.
Weezer's self-titled 1994 debut (the "Blue Album") was a blast of relatively clean-cut, undeniably catchy power pop at a time when rock radio was in serious thrall to all things "alternative" or "grunge." (The album came out, coincidentally, the month after Kurt Cobain's suicide and the release of Hole's Live Through This). It was slick yet genuinely affecting, with Rivers Cuomo mining stock subject matters (love, jealousy, surfing USA) for songs that felt both uniquely personal and universally sympathetic. Weezer would be certified triple-platinum, spawning the hits "Undone (The Sweater Song)," "Buddy Holly," and "Say It Ain't So." So far, so fucking good.
The trouble started with the band's 1996 follow-up, Pinkerton. Not that the album itself was bad—on the contrary, Pinkerton is now widely and rightly regarded as Weezer's masterpiece, or at least their only other album to live up to the giddy promise of their debut. The record is sonically raw though still hook-filled, and its songs are more emotionally revealing and intimate (though still spiked with goofy humor) than anything the band's done since, seeming to detail Cuomo's inner life with nothing held back. And it's not without the occasional cringe. The singer creeps on a college crush, fantasizes about a faraway fan touching herself, unconvincingly renounces meaningless sex, and generally exposes all kinds of loneliness and anxiety.
The problem with Pinkerton was that it sort of flopped at the time. Critical reception was cool or at least mixed, and commercially it failed to perform nearly as well as its predecessor. What many bands might have chalked up to archetypal sophomore slump and taken in stride, Weezer, or at least Cuomo, took hard. So hard that he returned to his studies at Harvard and put the band on indefinite hiatus. He denounced the album, calling it "a hideous record... a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people."
If Cuomo had gone into hiding for good, he would've been revered as a god, worshipped on a par with Neutral Milk Hotel hermit Jeff Mangum or the late recluse J. D. Salinger. Instead, Weezer returned with 2001's self-titled "Green Album." It was a fine, not fantastic record, but the wait had been so long that it was hailed as a triumphant comeback, a return to "Blue Album" form, way out of proportion to its quality. Crucially absent was Pinkerton's sense of gut-pouring honesty (or oversharing): Weezer's songs had always been formulaic pop in structure, but stripped of any potentially embarrassing specificity, they started seeming slightly clinical.
The band continued on this new tack with 2002's Maladroit. It had a few good songs, but anyone who tells you they can remember what happens in the back half of that record is lying to you. Around the time of Maladroit's release, Rolling Stone published a profile of Cuomo that shed some light on what, beyond his hurt over Pinkerton, might be going wrong. In the article, Cuomo sings the praises of rap-rock stooges Limp Bizkit and shows off "an elaborate color-coded spreadsheet that catalogs all the songs he's written in the past three and a half years."
This isn't the only chart he's kept: A few years ago, he started keeping a notebook of every song Kurt Cobain wrote. In it, he dissected the songs in as mathematical a manner as he could... "It wasn't only Nirvana," Cuomo says, "but also Oasis and Green Day." He still keeps a three-ring binder he calls "The Encyclopedia of Pop," full of his analysis of different artists. "I'm probably just a natural-born scientist. I like taking notes and analyzing things."
And this is when things really started going downhill: 2005's Make Believe was a commercial success that spawned the band's highest- charting single, the cloying, lug-headed rock-radio trifle "Beverly Hills." The rest of the album—produced by Rick Rubin, reportedly inspired by yoga, the liner notes excerpting Prospero's closing speech from The Tempest—went from "Beverly Hills" to worse.
And 2008 brought another self-titled album, red this time. By this point, it was getting hard to give new Weezer a chance. Every album brought drastically diminishing returns for the longtime fan, and it seemed unlikely that the band would ever reverse course. Nevertheless, it was impossible to ignore the video for lead single "Pork and Beans"—not because it was a great video (Spike Jonze was long gone by now), but because it was so hopelessly sad. In it, Weezer enlisted every YouTube meme of the past year that they could get their hands on—Tay Zonday, Chris Crocker, the Numa Numa kid—in the hope of leeching some of that spontaneous, viral-video momentum. At one point, the band performs wearing lab coats, as if spoofing Cuomo's widely publicized scientific method.
The song pokes fun at Cuomo's pop-chart experiments, too, with its open call to producer Timbaland. If you ignored most of the lyrics, "Pork and Beans" wouldn't be a bad song. The riffs on the chorus are great, opened up wide and distorted, the kind of instantly sticking melody that Cuomo probably charts out in his sleep. But its details were unsympathetic, its broad sentiments of rebellion ("I'ma do the things that I wanna do") and self-actualization ("I'm fine and dandy with the me inside") juvenile and ill-suited to a grown artist who can, clearly, do whatever he wants. Worst of all, its shallowly sneering barbs seemed to condescend to those fans who just wanted Weezer to "give a hoot" again.
Around this time, Cuomo released a pair of albums collecting his unreleased home demos, Alone and Alone II; these songs from the vault suggested that tapping into his inner scientist could sometimes work, but that what Cuomo really needed was to better connect with his inner editor. (At the time of that Rolling Stone article, he had 377 songs in his spreadsheet.)
Anyway, if you were bored with the band lining up in front of different colored backgrounds for one self-titled album after another, Weezer's 2009 record Raditude set out to make you pine for such carefree times. Named by Dwight from The Office and featuring a Photoshopped dog on the cover, it contained exactly zero songs worth hearing. Recently, the band announced the title and cover art for their next LP, Hurley, the cover of which features a close-up of the Lost character of the same name. The press release for the album calls it a "return to Weezer's indie rock roots" (it's actually their first album for an independent, Epitaph), quoting Cuomo as saying, "We all felt that the really intense, raw emotional side of Weezer is what's going to make everyone the happiest at this moment." This is all basically code for a return to Pinkerton (which Cuomo has lately come around to praising as "super-deep, brave, and authentic")—but I'll believe that when I hear it. Hurley aside, the band recently told MTV they were considering a nostalgia tour performing only Pinkerton and the "Blue Album."
Ultimately, if you're an erstwhile Weezer fan of a certain age, the story of their rise and fall is also a story about growing up. If you were, say, 14 when their debut came out, you're 30 now, and your appetite for four-chord power pop may have naturally waned in the intervening years. But something else is at work. When Weezer progressed from the friendly teen angst of their debut to the messier, more worldly material of Pinkerton, it felt like the band was going to be growing up with us. But they didn't. It's like Cuomo realized about pop-music fans what Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused did about high-school girls (there may be some demographic overlap here): "I get older; they stay the same age." In Dazed and Confused, that nugget of wisdom is sleazy and sad; in the case of Weezer, it just feels cold and pragmatic. The kids who bought Make Believe are not the same ones who spent the late '90s poring over Pinkerton, wondering if that band would ever come back. We're still wondering.