Weezer (Black Album)
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If you’re a Blue Album (1994) purist or a Pinkerton (1996) habitué, chances are you’ve already discovered that Weezer’s latest album isn’t going to satiate anyone who hoped it would return them to the vehement, guitar-smothered hymns that made their earlier records so readily captivating.
In fact, it would seem that Rivers Cuomo may have deliberately worked against your wishes. Sort of.
“There’s very little guitar. I wrote all the songs on piano,” he recently told Entertainment Weekly. “We’ve been trying to make this record for several years. We’ve ended up putting out more normal records, just ’cause we weren’t able to figure this one out. We finally found the right partner in [producer] Dave Sitek and really committed to the idea of throwing out the rule book. Without the big guitar, there’s more room for reverb and different kinds of psychedelic effects.”
So, if the Black Album isn’t a “normal” Weezer record—what is it?
And this is where my job becomes difficult. The fact that this review is arriving a full two weeks after the set’s release is directly correlated to my personal struggle to articulate my feelings about it.
I’ll start by saying that I’m usually of the “let Weezer be Weezer” philosophy, and I’ve often balked at the hypercriticism of those who’ve refused to give them any sort of latitude because they haven’t kept cranking out different takes on “Buddy Holly.” I’m happy to see them have fun and experiment, and I support them challenging themselves and their listeners musically.
They take risks and release material that has the potential to polarize their audience—something many bands who have been around as long as Weezer have avoided to cash in on their much safer tried-and-true approaches.
That being said, I realize the spaghetti method of record-making doesn’t always yield the most edible of results. The Black Album is a mixed bag of concoctions. The geek Weltschmerz of yester-Weezer is still manifest across the record’s ten tracks, although it doesn’t feel as penetratingly visceral as their formative work.
That’s not to say there isn’t good stuff to embrace here. The album’s opener “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is a funky, punchy take on working for a living in the age of Uber, capitalizing on Cuomo’s trademark playful insolence (“the future's so bright, I gotta poke my eyes out / running up my credit cards / sellin’ lemonade by the side of the road / you see it all from where you are”).
Those who prefer Cuomo’s darker, introspective point of view to his lippy bluster will embrace the dreamy ballad “High as a Kite,” which, according to Cuomo, is a close thematic cousin to “Surf Wax America.”
“I think this is a recurring theme I have in my life of wanting to get high in one way or the other,” he told Zane Lowe of Beats1 in February. “Not necessarily by shooting heroin, but whatever it is you do to get high and escape the pain of life. So, there’s, like, the mixed feelings about it of the release from the pain, but also, ‘is that all there is in life if you’re just basically shutting yourself off?’”
“Byzantine” is a neat little bossa nova sketch co-written by Cuomo and Against Me! founder Laura Jane Grace, colored by droll imagery that mixes equal parts sex and silliness (“put on your red beret, baby / moonwalk naked across the room / do something kinda unique to me / do something that'll make me swoon.”) It’s adorable kitsch that’s just weighty enough to be mentally engaging.
Other Black Album tracks are less successful melodically and lyrically. “Zombie Bastards,” which was served up as the record’s first preview single, is as puerile as its title. While I won’t begrudge Weezer for indulging in a little bit of fluff, the faux reggae party anthem vibe seems better left to lesser bands.
The awkward “The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” which Cuomo claims evolved unconsciously as a tribute to The Purple One, comes across as overtly fatuous (and maybe even a little affronted) rather than clever (“ooh, his hair was very Joan Baez / and fans would auction off his autographs / look at him now, oh / look at him now, oh / his paisley bones.”)
“Living in L.A.” boasts a solid, memorable hook where Cuomo borrows astutely from Sting’s early ‘80s yowl, but it suffers from a generic narrative that doesn’t match its urgency. “California Snow,” despite its cool sparkling synth underscore, follows suit.
In the end, I don’t know what I actually expected from the Black Album, other than hoping that more than just a handful of tracks would resonate with me. Maybe I’m beginning to understand why the Weezer traditionalists are so hungry to be moved as deeply as they were when they first heard “Only in Dreams.”
But, while followers and critics fret over whether or not the Black Album actually works as a cohesive record, Cuomo and his bandmates at least seem self-aware, and possibly even at rest with the fact, that it might not.
“My main goal for any album at this point is for it to have at least one song that the audience at our shows every night wants to hear. I don’t know if [the Black Album] will succeed at the goal. But I think, at least, we will fail in a different way, which is exciting to me.”
That approach might be inspiring to some fans, and it will likely frustrate the living hell out of others. Either way, there’s a small amount of solace in knowing that if you don’t like the Black Album version of Weezer, they’ve been prolific enough of late that their next album is probably not too far off.
And for those who were enchanted by their out-of-the-box prodigiousness, Cuomo hints that he and his colleagues might be trading in their programmed keys for six-strings in the next go-round.
“What I’ve been working on the last two weeks is back to big guitars. Blue Album-ish, but a little more riffy,” he revealed to Entertainment Weekly last month. “The working title is Van Weezer. The inspiration came from our live shows, where, in the middle of ‘Beverly Hills,’ unlike on the album, everything stops and I just break out with this crazy guitar solo. We noticed that, recently, the crowd just goes crazy when I do that. So it feels like maybe the audience is ready for some shredding again.”
Notable Tracks: "Byzantine" | “Can’t Knock the Hustle” | "High as a Kite"