60 minutes of power pop to prove there’s life after Pinkerton for Weezer

60 minutes of power pop to prove there’s life after Pinkerton for Weezer

If you’ve never heard a Weezer song before, you’re in for a treat: Rivers Cuomo and his bandmates have created some of the catchiest blasts of peppy and crunchy guitar rock ever recorded. You’re probably going to love these songs. Especially the one about the sweater.

But if you really are new to Weezer, you don’t need a best-of collection. Any serious discussion of the band’s greatest work begins with its debut—self-titled but commonly referred to as The Blue Album—and ends with its sophomore effort, the flop-turned-cult-favorite Pinkerton. These albums, released two years apart in the mid-’90s, basically are best-of collections; they represent the pinnacle of the Weezer formula, that joyous blend of KISS and sun-kissed, arena-meets-alternative rock, of delectable sing-along choruses and wordy, idiosyncratic verses. Cram the two records together on one playlist, cut three to four songs, and you’d have one hell of a Power Hour.

What you wouldn’t have is the whole Weezer story, not even close. Much as it kills the dyed-in-the-wool diehards to admit it, Blue and Pinkerton only account for a small portion of the L.A. outfit’s discography. Since unexpectedly emerging from five years of hibernation in 2001, Cuomo and company have released a whopping eight LPs—four times as many as they cut during the prior decade, their “heyday.” That means that to honestly call yourself a Weezer fan, you have to grapple with the songs they’ve put out this millennium. You know, the ones with titles like “I’m Your Daddy” and “The Girl Got Hot.”

It’s a tall order, especially for those who jumped off the W train after “Hash Pipe,” the chugga-chugga first single from color-coded comeback The Green Album. Anyone working their way through Weezer’s second act will have to contend with some oppressively slick production, bland jingle-like songwriting, and lyrics that range from anonymous (“I apologize to you / And to anyone else who I’ve hurt too”) to proudly stupid (“I can’t go out without my sex / It’s cold outside if my toes get wet”). Why has the band struggled so much to recapture the infectious charm of its early work? Theories range from the sophomore sales slump of Pinkerton (whose failure prompted Cuomo to swear off writing “personal” songs ever again) to the departure of original bassist Matt Sharp. These explanations may account for a dip in quality, but they don’t excuse the abuse of the brand—the band’s canny transformation into mascots of meme culture. Remember when Weezer made videos with Spike Jonze? These days, they make videos with YouTube stars.

Being a modern Weezer fan can be tough, in other words. But being Weezer can’t always be a cakewalk either. It involves taking a lot of abuse, much of it from people who once called themselves fans. Reviews are often vicious. And there was, of course, that grassroots campaign designed to literally pay the band $10 million to break up and stop destroying all of our apparently fragile childhoods. Cuomo frequently insists, in both song and interview form, that he doesn’t give a hoot about what you think. Constantly saying as much seems to indicate otherwise, as does the frontman’s almost obligatory tendency to sell every new record as the band’s best since Pinkerton—a promise, usually unfulfilled, that can’t help but feel like an ongoing apology tour.

Here’s the tough truth, one that both Cuomo and those invested in his work should accept: Weezer will probably never make a record as funny, as memorable, as flat-out great as Pinkerton or The Blue Album ever again. That creative moment has passed. That lightning couldn’t be bottled. The good news, and the buried lede, is that the band is still capable of making music that’s pretty damn solid—bright, fun, radio-ready earworms sprinkled sporadically across its uneven, postmillennial body of work (or in the case of April’s genuinely superb The White Album, crowded together on one record).

To really appreciate the pleasures these aging rockers can still provide, maybe it’d be better to stop dwelling on the Weezer that was. This is the new Weezer, the one that emerged from the ashes of the old one, ready to party with the Muppets, play side by side with The Flaming Lips, and offer its own take on loud-quiet-loud, whoa-whoa-whoa power pop. So instead of creating a playlist of Weezer’s best songs—all of which, again, would just come from those first two records—we’re here to celebrate the best of Weezer 2.0, citing only songs from 2001 and beyond. There’s plenty of wheat to separate from the chaff, plenty of first-rate anthems that don’t mention Beverly Hills or feature the word “booyah.” Hey, you might love some of these songs, too.

1. “California Kids” (2016)

So maybe don’t completely forget about old Weezer. New Weezer certainly hasn’t. “California Kids,” the triumphant opening track from this year’s The White Album, is a killer kickoff—it builds and builds, until exploding into an irresistible chorus. The song also works as a fine segue, easing listeners from one era of Weezer into the next with a couple of sonic touchstones straight out of its glory days: A drunken warble of guitar, laid over scene-setting beach sounds, opens the song (and album) on a very “Pink Triangle” note, while the crunch-release-crunch of the chorus vaguely recalls “Say It Ain’t So.” The lyrics, meanwhile, extend an affectionate olive branch backward through time, as Cuomo sweetly sings, “All your old friends / Chilling back in Boston / You never forgot them.” If you gave up on Weezer years ago, “California Kids” is the perfect invitation to dip your toes back in. The water’s fine.

2. “Keep Fishin,’” single version (2002)

Keep fishing, indeed. The album version of this track from Maladroit, Weezer’s hardest rocking record, is agreeable enough. But when it came time to release the song to radio, as the follow-up single to the nonsensical “Dope Nose,” Cuomo figured he could do better. He was right: The fully rerecorded version of “Keep Fishin’” is a major improvement, replacing the rolling drums of Pat Wilson’s intro with some isolated acoustic strumming, giving the guitars some extra oomph, and rearranging the call-and-response climax. Cuomo, a pop alchemist by admission (and much more of a perfectionist than his hit-to-miss ratio would suggest), understands that a good song can become a great one with just a little tinkering. Bonus points for the delightful music video, which paired Weezer with the Muppets, a match made in geek heaven.

3. “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn)” (2008)

Sometimes there’s a fine line between audacious and awful. “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived,” the second single off Weezer’s anything-goes Red Album, does a stupid jig all over that line, then collapses exhausted on the better side of it. Built around the melody of the Shaker standard “Simple Gifts,” this 11-verse song suite tells the Weezer star-is-born story through barber-shop harmonizing, falsetto warbling, quasi-rapping about “playing in your underwear,” a spoken-word interlude, and a section reportedly inspired by Slipknot. Never has Weezer crammed so many bad ideas into one song. But by squishing them together (think Three Stooges syndrome), blowing through them at lightning speed (if you don’t like the weather…), and augmenting them with his usual gift for naggingly catchy hooks, Cuomo gets aways with it. He once called “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” his favorite Weezer song. That’s blatantly insane but makes a certain kind of sense. It’s certainly the most Weezer song.

4. “Island In The Sun” (2001)

Weezer returned from self-imposed exile with “Hash Pipe,” a big, dumb slab of radio rock that instantly launched the band back into heavy rotation. But 15 years later, it’s The Green Album’s second single, “Island In The Sun,” that’s retained its don’t-touch-the-dial appeal. Acoustic and electric guitar entwine like honeymooning lovers, as Cuomo croons out an ode to summer, sunshine, and holidays. Then he puts the power into this power ballad, disrupting the sleepy beach-party vibe like an erupting volcano (or, you know, some other dramatic release that occurs during a tropical vacation). Despite the opening refrain, “Island In The Sun” is more square than hip (hip), which is a big part of its enduring charm. It’s the loudest Beach Boys song Brian Wilson never wrote, and probably still the best single Weezer 2.0 has released.

5. “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” (2009)

Raditude is Weezer’s worst album, a deadly mix of sophomoric novelty songs, faceless skater punk, and one truly misguided Lil Wayne collaboration. The diamond in the rough is its misleadingly excellent opening track. Over a playful jangle and stomp, Cuomo role-plays as a lovestruck adolescent, watching Titanic with a Slayer-loving girl next door and violating his vegetarianism to please her parents. While most of Raditude feels pandering (and a little creepy) in its pubescence, the perfectly titled “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” endearingly captures the first flush of puppy love with a tinge of hindsight knowingness. It also breaks the band’s habit of putting the wrong foot forward, of picking the dopiest song on a new record (“Beverly Hills,” “Back To The Shack,” “Thank God For Girls”) as the lead single.

6. “Peace” (2005)

Those who don’t call Raditude worst of the Weez usually reach for Make Believe instead. (Over)produced by Rick Rubin, this 2005 collection of superpolished, mostly impersonal anthems earned the band some of the nastiest reviews of its career, including a Pitchfork pan that went as far as saying that it made the critic retroactively doubt his love for Blue and Pinkerton. Empty as Make Believe’s lyrical content often is, Cuomo’s ear for a hummable melody remains intact, especially on “Perfect Situation” and “This Is Such A Pity,” the two tracks the haters most frequently cite as highlights. “Peace” does those songs one better by largely downplaying words: The vague platitudes of the verses and chorus eventually give way to a string of emphatically delivered “whoa-oh-ohs.” That makes it much easier to ignore whatever Cuomo is singing about and focus on how he’s singing it, with the tuneful central riff and some typically appealing acoustic/electric interplay as icing on the cake. More modern Weezer songs could benefit from pushing lyrics to the fringe.

7. “Photograph” (2001)

The Green Album plays less like a collection of individual songs than a single, sustained blast of positive energy; its tracks tend to run together, making the selection of a favorite difficult and kind of unnecessary. “Photograph” might be the best representation of the album’s spirit. Green’s third and final single wasn’t the FM-dominating hit its predecessors were, but maybe that’s because its two minutes and 19 seconds seem to pass in a blur of pure pleasure, much like the record as a whole. “Photograph” commences with a squawk of distortion and winds down with some elated applause. In between, it’s all power chords, backup coos (and “oh, babys”), and lyrics about love. The song’s over just a little quicker than you want it to be, like a doomed summer fling or an ice-cream cone too sweet to savor.

8. “Burndt Jamb” (2002)

That solo. It’s a thunderbolt down the middle of this Maladroit standout and a rebuke to any who dare blame emo on Weezer instead of associating the band with the heavy-rock heroes its members worship. “Burndt Jamb” abbreviates the basic structure of “Island In The Sun,” opening on bouncy drums and riding an almost tropical lick, before the shredding comes in with a vengeance. Cuomo, who’s spoken of studying Nirvana and The Pixies, comes close here to creating the pressurized ideal of those bands’ celebrated loud-quiet dichotomy. In the process, he cuts the fat from his own group’s formula, leaving behind a couple verses, no chorus, and some righteous guitar. If “Photograph” leaves you wanting more, “Burndt Jamb” feels perfectly compressed. It’s only the good parts.

9. “Miss Sweeney” (2008)

It makes sense that “Miss Sweeney” appears only as a bonus track on the deluxe version of The Red Album. The song, with its over-enunciated vocals and answering-machine intro, is a little too offbeat to fit even on Weezer’s most odds-and-sods LP. But that’s what makes it such an uncharacteristic treat, a respite from the cleaner, bigger pop of the group’s latter day. Cuomo’s back in role-playing mode, this time as a middle manager not so secretly smitten with one of his coworkers. Creepy? Sure, but so was most of Pinkerton, and “Miss Sweeney” updates the Harvard heartsickness of that record to a postgraduate office setting, as though Cuomo’s character had moved on from crushing on his Japanese pen pal to pining for the beauty in accounting. The chorus, by the way, in which the boss belts his true feelings (before hilariously trying to walk it back), sounds a lot like “Susanne.” That it can be mentioned in the same breath as that fellow bonus-track valentine is a big compliment indeed.

10. “Jacked Up” (2016)

As a concept record of sorts, The White Album has a very loose narrative, telling the story of a California romance that blooms and wilts over the course of a summer. (Anyway, that’s the story it seems to tell.) What’s great about “Jacked Up,” the penultimate track, is that it introduces the necessary shade of melancholy—the storm cloud that turns blue skies gray—without abandoning White’s piano-pop game plan. This is one of Cuomo’s most arresting vocal performances: Going all pinched falsetto over a waltz of keys, he really sells the teen-angst emotion of lines like “We’ll sleep together, sleep forever, minus one.” That anything called “Jacked Up” could turn out this lovely is a fine reminder that the guys in Weezer are generally better at making songs than they are at giving them titles.

11. “Trainwrecks” (2010)

The hype for Hurley, Weezer’s first record after decamping for the indie label Epitaph, was that the band was going back to power-pop basics, ditching the sometimes painful gimmickry of The Red Album and Raditude for a closer approximation of its original sound. No fan, alas, could really confuse the inoffensive results for a Blue revival—but newness is actually the primary strength of Hurley’s best track. Opening with a swell of ghostly chamber-pop instrumentation that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire record, “Trainwrecks” sounds like nothing Weezer had done before; its steady stomp and enormous, tuneful chorus are testaments to Cuomo’s gift for crafting massively likable songs without repeating himself. Lyrically, “Trainwrecks” skewers a certain species of clueless bohemian (generation debatable), with Cuomo playing Sid to an equally irresponsible Nancy. He’s genuinely funny here, which is one way Hurley does play like a welcome throwback.

12. “Dreamin’” (2008)

Each Weezer album has its own stylistic identity, but it’s the color-coded self-titled ones that feel like statements—the records where Weezer says, “This is who we are.” To that end, 2008’s eclectic Red is Cuomo and company declaring that they can be anyone they want to be—that they can write multi-suite compositions, that each member can handle vocals occasionally, and that none of them care about the expectations of the faithful. Album centerpiece “Dreamin’” doesn’t redefine the parameters of the Weezer sound quite as thoroughly as fellow Red highlight “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived.” But this self-reflective salute to not growing up does prove that the band can fruitfully slow its roll and stretch its legs, specifically during a gently extended bridge in which chirping birds and soothing backup vocals lull Cuomo’s narrator into his own carefree imagination. Ironically, a song about refusing to mature shows real signs of maturity, at least sonically speaking.

13. “Wind In Our Sail” (2016)

Speaking of maturity, one of the many reasons The White Album runs laps around its immediate predecessors is that Cuomo mostly stops playing mall-rat dumb and lets some of his Ivy League smarts actually seep into the songwriting. Nerdier than this supposedly nerdy band usually gets, “Wind In Our Sail” accents its boy-meets-girl story with appearances by Darwin, Mendel, and Sisyphus, while seamlessly working in a few five-dollar words like “cumulonimbus” and “acidification.” The result sounds like a love story between genuine eggheads, not to mention a progression in the kind of “dorky” interests Cuomo will casually name-drop. (Has he moved on from the garage to the chem lab, from his 12-sided die to a beaker set?) Anyway, you don’t need a dictionary or textbook to appreciate the science of the songcraft, as Weezer rides a wave of piano-abetted cheer to one of its most joyous choruses this century.

14. “Slave” (2002)

For brawn instead of brains, Maladroit still delivers: It’s the most metal Weezer record by far, and the closest the band has come to shredding like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, or Slayer (to paraphrase “Heart Songs”). It’s also one of Weezer 2.0’s most consistent, satisfying blocks of music—enough so that when fans don’t hyperbolically cite a new record as the “best since Pinkerton,” they more conservatively call it the “best since Maladroit.” Any number of underrated deep cuts would make a fine addition to this Power Hour, but it’s the epic blare of “Slave”—whose opening chords sound like a rocket ship blasting off—that best exemplifies the album’s perfect union of openhearted sentimentality and stadium-quaking bombast. “I can’t change,” Cuomo bellows, and for a couple of blissfully loud minutes, you hope he never does.

15. “Foolish Father” (2014)

Confessional songwriting disappeared from the Weezer playbook ages ago—right around the time, specifically, that the record-buying public recoiled from the sound of that cuddly, bespectacled fellow from the Happy Days video singing about masturbating to letters from Japanese schoolgirls. But if Cuomo now limits his “personal” material to rock-star anecdotes and lists of other bands he likes, there are tiny hints of autobiography scattered across his liner notes. Take “Foolish Father,” for example. One of the best tracks from 2014’s well-received Everything Will Be Alright In The End, the song finds Cuomo urging an unnamed someone to make amends with her remorseful deadbeat dad. The someone could be anyone or no one, but references to Cuomo making up with his father on the same record’s “Back To The Shack”—coupled with the frontman’s own adventures in parenthood—make “Foolish Father” sound suspiciously like veiled memoir. Personal or not, the song’s plea for reconciliation is genuinely moving, especially when a euphoric choir of voices comes in at the end to reassure subject and listener alike that, yes, everything will be all right in the end.

16. “L.A. Girlz” (2016)

Okay, you can remember Pinkerton again. Moronically misspelled title aside, “L.A. Girlz” is the rare 21st-century Weezer jam that sounds like it could have been recorded way back in 1996 and simply put on ice for the interim. Its déjà vu factor rests on the familiar sweet-creepy binary of the lyrics, the ache in Cuomo’s voice, and the ragged blast of guitar that accompanies his motormouthed musings. But no nostalgia is necessary to appreciate the disarming moment when Cuomo, drunk on his big feels, asks repeatedly and with increasing urgency, “Does anybody love anybody as much as I love you, baby?” It’s a sentiment simple enough to scrawl on a Hallmark card, but the delivery is so overwhelmingly affecting that it ends up working like the best case for Weezer 2.0: At the top of its game, this is still a band that can make pillow talk sound like poetry.

17. ”December,” demo version (2001)

If “Keep Fishin’” needed a do-over to achieve its full fist-pounding potential, Weezer got this other Maladroit track right before it made the final cut: First put on tape during a fan-famous DC recording session, the melancholic “December” later appeared in a much beefier form as the album’s official closing track. But the demo version, eventually made available on Weezer’s website, is the superior one, its pained romanticism better served by a slower, prettier arrangement. Several of Weezer’s official albums go out on a ballad. Why should this unofficial one be any different?

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