There’s often little more than a hair’s breadth of difference separating good Weezer from bad. Take “All The Good Ones,” the second song on Van Weezer, the latest album from the longtime power-pop rockers: Structurally and sonically, there’s very little distinction between the track and “Beverly Hills,” the band’s obnoxious 2005 hit. Both feature identical “We Will Rock You”-style rhythm (they even share hand claps doubling on the snare hits, because apparently Rivers Cuomo just can’t help himself), the same jagged start-stop guitar riffing, and verse-chorus-verse transitions that shift in like manner toward a busy coda. But where “Beverly Hills” is cringeworthy earworm material, “All The Good Ones” actually, well, rocks. The lyrics are solid, the melody strong, and the riffing feels alive in a way that “Hills”’ trend-chasing smash never did. And maybe that’s part of the fine line between the two: Bad Weezer often feels like it’s striving for relevance. “All The Good Ones”—and all the rest of Van Weezer, for that matter—couldn’t possibly care less about seeming relevant, or even vaguely cool.
Van Weezer has been touted as the group’s tribute to the 1980s metal and rock of Cuomo’s youth, and that’s not just marketing. It may occasionally feel like window dressing, but the shredding guitars and Van Halen-esque fretwork peppering much of the record is married to an earnest effort to recreate the pomp and grandiosity of that era of mainstream rock. The album is a fusion of Weezer music and the musical sensibilities of the time (not exactly an oil-and-water mix, already), a wayback machine of a release that sheds any sense of contemporary edge for the rosy-eyed glasses of hard-rock revivalism. And that’s an important element of its success, because it takes Cuomo’s oft-insipid lyricism of the 21st century and transforms it into a product of its time—when he sings “She’s mine, all mine / Don’t mess with my girl” on “She Needs Me,” and then goes into a shredding cock-rock guitar solo straight out of a Warrant song, it comes across as playfully absurd, rather than clumsily outdated. Weezer sound like they’re having a hell of a lot of fun, and that feeling saturates the record.
But more importantly, it’s all done with a tight, well-written collection of songs that sound more exuberantly joyous than the band has in years. Clocking in at a tight 31 minutes, Van Weezer gets in, rocks, and gets out again before there’s much time to worry about some of the sillier moments. The first half of the album—beginning with the Def Leppard bombast of “The End Of The Game”’s opening riffage, and ending with the ruefully ironic passage-of-time tribute of “Beginning Of The End”—is one of the strongest runs of songs, start to finish, since the Green Album, even more so than the White Album. “Hero” is a fist-pump anthem of a rocker, with an over-the-top refrain and lyrics about the nigh-universality of imposter syndrome writ large (“If silence is the voice of a new generation / Then I could live up to all of your expectations”). “I Need Some Of That” indulges in the band’s penchant for ’80s melody and arrangements, sounding almost like Hall & Oates with fuzzier distortion pedals—yacht-rock vocals paired to a wall of sound. And “Beginning Of The End” comments on the arguably silly nature of the project, and maybe the question of an aging rock band in general, with good-natured brio: “In heavy metal we trust / Then kick back and read the Sunday Times.” (It’s fitting that the band contributed “Beginning Of The End” as a single to Bill & Ted Face The Music, another project about paying sincere homage to a past others might see as embarrassing.)
But at least since Cuomo swore off writing personal songs following Pinkerton, lyrics have remained the hobgoblin of the band’s music, often sinking otherwise promising tracks with the force of their dunder-headed awkwardness. And the record’s most meta moment is also its clumsiest: “1 More Hit” is a poorly written addiction number (“Pump it up into me, please daddy, please daddy”) that doubles as a commentary on Cuomo’s own need to try and maintain some visibility as a rock star capable of churning out radio staples (“Could I have one more hit?” he plaintively inquires in the refrain.) Whether it’s self-aware or not doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the song kind of sucks. Also sticking out like a sore thumb is “Blue Dream,” which literally lifts the main riff of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and weds it to a standard-issue Weezer refrain, as though the band got tired of winking at its source material and just decided to steal it wholesale, which makes the whole thing a lot less fun. It may as well be on the Teal Album.
But those two exceptions prove the rule, which is that Van Weezer is exactly the gloriously over-the-top and endearing album a fan could’ve hoped for. And when it returns to form for the last few tracks, it actually goes back to a different lodestone, as the freewheeling fuzz of “Sheila Can Do It” wouldn’t sound out of place on the Blue Album, while closer “Precious Metal Girl” makes for an earnest, fey counterpart to Pinkerton’s “Butterfly,” complete with plaintive acoustic strumming and references to Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! But the overall vibe here is happy retro triumphalism, not the emotionally pent-up brilliance of the band’s early back-to-back classics. With tons of great hooks, and minimal cringe, this is the rare Weezer record that is simply fun to listen to, without fear of having to jump for the “skip” button every couple of songs. Like the record’s pandemic-borne sibling, the orchestral pop release OK Human, an exercise in intentional nostalgia turned out to be the most forward-thinking move the band could make.