The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club ’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
When Weezer was finalizing tracks for what would become the band’s fourth album Maladroit in early 2002, frontman Rivers Cuomo repeatedly delved into a closed, private message board that became known as the Rivers Correspondence Board—under the username “ace,” after KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. It was a fan-created haven designed as a place to voice concerns about the songs from the Maladroit sessions, which the band posted in MP3 form on Weezer’s official website throughout late 2001 and early 2002.
In Cuomo’s most infamous dip into the alluring but dangerous waters of early Internet fan interaction, he referred to The Blue Album closer “Only In Dreams” as “GAY! GAY! GAY! DISNEYGAY!” (That inelegant phrasing has since been adopted by Weezer fans for tongue-in-cheek criticism of later-album songs deemed cheesy, such as “My Best Friend” on Make Believe or “Love Is The Answer” on Raditude.) It wasn’t a good look for Cuomo then, who during the ensuing meltdown also repeatedly told fans the song was full of phony emotion and that the band “hated [The Blue Album] when we were done with it.” But that incident didn’t do anything to torpedo fan appreciation for the song. During Weezer’s first set on its proprietary cruise earlier this year, “Only In Dreams” came in second on the fan-voted setlist, ahead of all other Blue Album tracks, and behind only Pinkerton’s “El Scorcho.”
Officially listed at eight minutes, “Only In Dreams” is the longest song Weezer has ever recorded, and despite any outpourings to the contrary, it’s Cuomo’s epic masterpiece. Opening with the most distinct bass line of the band’s career—really the only other candidates are the simplistic opening notes of Make Believe’s “Beverly Hills” and Pinkerton’s “Why Bother”—the song slowly assembles in piecemeal fashion, adding drummer Patrick Wilson’s ride cymbal. Then a lightly strummed acoustic guitar joins in with the base chords of the song. Three other Blue Album tracks—“My Name Is Jonas,” “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” and “In The Garage”—as well as “Undone (The Sweater Song)” B-side “Mykel And Carli”—open with that stylistic progression, which wouldn’t be duplicated as a motif on any subsequent album. A few measures later, Wilson’s snare and bass drum kick in, then a wavering second guitar melody, and the song is off like the tortoise, slow and steady.
Cuomo’s lyrics are dreamy and innocently surreal, about a guy so intoxicated with a girl that “she’s in the air / In between molecules / Of oxygen and carbon dioxide.” The second verse retreats a bit, dropping both guitars, leaving just bass, the simple drum beat, and Cuomo’s vocals descend to just above a whisper to narrate the inner insecurity of a nervous boy asking a girl to dance—a reference to Kiss’ cover of Phil Spector’s “Then He Kissed Me” from 1977’s Love Gun—while worrying about stepping on her toes. Cuomo does have a point about the simplicity and romanticized nature of the lyrics. But part of what works so splendidly about the song is how the first half takes straightforward and simple elements and stacks them on top of each other in order to make a track that could’ve been played as a slow song at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance—except for the booming choruses with the album’s frequently-employed guitar distortion.
But what separates “Only In Dreams” from every other Weezer song is the 60-measure instrumental crescendo that makes up the back half of the song. At a little over three minutes, that’s longer than every single track on Maladroit, all but two of the ones on the comeback Green Album, and around half the songs in the band’s entire catalog.
About five minutes in, the final sustained guitar line drops out, leaving Matt Sharp’s repeating bass line—unresolved until the song’s final note—and Wilson’s drums. Restarting from the initial crawling pace at the song’s beginning, the sound builds, and relentlessly keeps building—the band slowly but surely moving up a mountain toward the summit. First the guitar strumming picks up, then Sharp’s bass shifts into double-time, and then Wilson’s ride strikes on every beat. Two guitar lines emerge, pushing and pulling off each other, both awash in distortion, rising louder, the tension drawing out seemingly forever, until finally Wilson slams his loudest five snare hits, and the greatest Weezer guitar solo emerges, an avalanche anchored by the ever-present bass line. It’s the most transcendent the band has ever sounded without the benefit of Cuomo’s lyrics doing some emotional heavy lifting.
On the 1992 Kitchen Tapes demo, the first recorded version of “Only In Dreams” is noticeably slower. The choruses don’t punch as tough without the shift into manic distortion, except during the pre-bridge, when Cuomo’s screams take on a more forceful, rasping quality—still trying a bit too hard to imitate Kurt Cobain instead of finding his own voice. The biggest difference is the length of the song. There’s still an extended solo tacked on at the end, but it’s liltingly airy, a circuitous thread that stays below the main chord progression. But it still contains contributions from founding rhythm guitarist Jason Cropper.
The sequence of events leading to Cropper’s departure is somewhat hazy. The band aggressively sought out a major label record deal (eventually landing with Geffen), and because of that goal wanted total commitment from every member. Cropper’s girlfriend was pregnant, and that split between band and family seems to have contributed to his departure. (Band historian and unofficial fifth member Karl Koch had a slightly rosier recollection in his unused liner notes originally intended for the deluxe reissue of The Blue Album. According to Koch, tensions were high, and Cropper “didn’t seem able to keep his personal stuff from overflowing into his performance and presence in the band.” That led to an emergency meeting during the recording sessions, and Cropper’s departure from the band.)
Current guitarist Brian Bell filled the open spot almost immediately, but he didn’t have enough time to learn all the guitar parts, only to contribute backing vocals. Rivers re-recorded all of Cropper’s work—allegedly, according to producer Ric Ocasek’s recollection in John D. Luerssen’s Rivers’ Edge, during a single session—meaning that the dueling guitars, cascading up and down the fretboard, are both from Cuomo. That fits the dream narrative rather nicely: the image of Rivers and Rivers flying over fretboards back and forth, the master only matched by his own reflection. Some will cite Maladroit’s “Dope Nose” as the band’s best guitar work. Others will name Pinkerton’s “Tired Of Sex,” or “Say It Ain’t So,” another Blue Album track that features dueling Cuomo guitar phrases. But they will be wrong. “Only In Dreams” is the pinnacle of Cuomo as a guitar soloist, because he’s battling himself up a hill, paced by Wilson and Sharp as they thunder toward a cathartic explosion.
“Only In Dreams” remains a stalwart fan favorite, so why hasn’t Weezer ever revisited this sonic territory? Thematically, Rivers hasn’t been interested in the lightly innocent subject matter. In the post-Pinkerton recordings, Cuomo rarely explores more introspective material—except, in the case of Make Believe, when it came to meditating in a closet and atoning for perceived past transgressions. Structurally, he has focused on synthesizing and compacting the strains of speed metal guitar playing with pop songcraft. Cuomo is out to write tight pop numbers, not sprawling, expansive songs that spin out into lengthy jams.
That focus on concision is even evident in the one other “long song” of Weezer’s career, The Red Album’s “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn),” which at nearly six minutes is the second longest song in the Weezer discography. (Red Album closer “The Angel And The One” doesn't count, since two minutes of atmospheric synth tones and silence pad out the runtime at the end.) “Greatest” bounces through 12 short, stylistically varied movements, ranging from straightforward power-pop to a section backed by a choir and punctuated with marching-style snare.
That leaves “Only In Dreams” a glorious anomaly in the Weezer canon: a set-closing barnburner that doesn’t ever need to be challenged. With The Blue Album’s 20th anniversary coming up in May, the big singles “Undone (The Sweater Song),” “Buddy Holly,” and “Say It Ain’t So,” along with their respectively eye-catching videos, will surely see a resurgence of attention. But the final song on the album is the only one that Cuomo hasn’t tried to replicate with later attempts. Perhaps that’s because he really believes what he said on the Rivers Correspondence Board about the lyrical content and the band’s attitude toward The Blue Album. But taking the whole discography into account, it’s more likely because “Only In Dreams” is so achingly perfect that attempting anything else in that vein would come off as a misguided imitation.