In defense of latter-day Weezer

The meme-prone power-pop icons have been the subject of widespread critical derision for the better part of two decades. But do they deserve it?
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Weezer / Billboard

It’s time to forgive Weezer.

Weezer, brrrr. The name alone is enough to send a chill down the spine of a generation of jaded hipsters. But like I said, it’s time to forgive.

The legendary power-pop outfit have inspired seemingly nonstop critical derision for the better part of two decades. Ever since the release of 2001’s Green Album—widely considered a dramatic drop in quality from the preceding one-two punch of the Blue Album (1994) and Pinkerton (1996)—they’ve faced accusations of slumming it, of squandering their talents, of making music that fails to reflect the level of musicianship they’ve presented in the past. Worst of all, they’ve been dismissed as a meme-band, deliberately trolling their audience by eschewing decent songcraft in favor of cheap, flashy gimmicks.

The case against the Weez

To be fair, some of these critiques hold water. Over the years, Rivers Cuomo and his rotating cast of bandmates have polished—some might say diluted—their scrappy garage sound considerably, adding heavy elements of hip-hop and electronic dance-pop. They’ve done no small amount of experimentation, and not all of it has worked.

Plus, it’s no exaggeration to place Weezer among the most Extremely Online acts of the century. These guys have been on the cutting edge of memedom since before memes were a widely-accepted concept. For proof, look no further than the video for Red Album single “Pork and Beans,” produced at a time when YouTube’s conquest of the Internet had barely begun. The clip features cameos from a host of the brightest YouTube stars of the day (The Mentos and Diet Coke guys! The Evolution of Dance guy! Chris Crocker!) and makes reference to just about every viral sensation of 2008.

And things have only grown more gimmicky from there. Last summer, the Weez shattered streaming records and scored their first #1 single in a decade with their Twitter-inspired cover of Toto’s “Africa.” And just last week, the band joined Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show for a barbershop-quartet rendition of their 1994 hit “Buddy Holly”—a gaudy, pinstriped spectacle that made me cringe just typing it out here.

So, why should we forgive them?

Weezer was never meant to be taken seriously. They’re a band of serial goofballs, and that’s always been a part of their appeal. They lace their music with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor, and they’ve done so from the very beginning.

Let’s revisit a few of their most beloved singles, shall we? You’ve got “Buddy Holly” which opens with a snide gangsta rap reference: “What’s with these homies dissing my girl / Why do they gotta front?” Cuomo babbles like an infant on “Undone”, and shrieks like a banshee throughout “El Scorcho.” Even “Say It Ain’t So”, a heartbreaking tale of alcoholism and childhood trauma, is rife with ridiculous and silly lyrics. I mean, come on: “Somebody’s Heine’ / Is crowding my icebox”? “Flip on the tele’ / Wrestle with Jimmie”? These dudes are straight-up clowns. Clowns who write phenomenal music, granted, but clowns nonetheless.

And why shouldn’t they double down on that clownishness at this point in the game? All four members of the band are either well into their early fifties or pushing 50. In other words, they’re at prime dad-joke age. This phase of their career isn’t slumming—it’s the logical next step. If they want to respond to the imminent approach of their mortality by dabbling in rap-rock and dressing like Crockett and Tubbs, who are we to stop them?

Yeah, but what about the music?

You could practically hear the groans from deep space when the world learned it would be getting not one, but two new Weezer records in 2019. The group recorded nine more covers in addition to their runaway hit take on “Africa” and released the batch in late January as the Teal Album. Then the Black Album followed earlier this month.

The average listener would be forgiven for interpreting these back-to-back releases as a continuation of Weezer’s increasing artistic desperation. Even the color-coded titles themselves sound like attempts to hearken back to the best-loved era of the band’s existence—or even to associate themselves with other artists with more iconic Black Albums (Metallica, Jay-Z, Prince, The Damned, etc. etc.). Surely this, at last, is the end for them, right?

Don’t be so sure. Here’s the thing: Both records are actually good.

The Teal Album

Teal indeed has the feel of an elaborately-orchestrated prank. Admittedly, the band isn’t especially creative in their song selection, mostly sticking to familiar mega-hits like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, “Billie Jean”, and “No Scrubs.” Plus, the covers are largely note-for-note renditions of the originals, albeit with fuzzier, more Weezer-y guitars (the only track they truly make their own is their take on Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”).

Regardless, the slickly-produced covers sound terrific, if only because of their solid source material. Teal is a breezy, sugary treat—a complete and utter novelty item—but never short of entertaining.

The Black Album

Black, meanwhile, finds Cuomo and co. grappling with the effects of their latter-day persona—and proving they still know their way around a deliriously catchy hook. Poppy production courtesy of Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) lends the tracks a unique buoyancy, making for a thoroughly enjoyable listen. We’re transported quickly from the self-aware Latin-tinged funk rock of “Can’t Knock the Hustle” to the 70s singer-songwriter sheen of drug anthem “High as a Kite” (which contains the telling line “So let me play this game for children / And vanish into the atmosphere”).

“Too Many Thoughts In My Head” sees Cuomo likening the exhausting, algorithm-controlled modern music biz to a “dog-and-pony show”, while “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” offers a bouncy, horn-driven, aggressively fun tribute to the late Purple One. The bubbly lounge-pop swooner “Byzantine” easily ranks as one of the album’s best cuts; co-written by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, it mocks trends and fads of all stripes with a knowing schmaltz. You’ll even find yourself forgiving Cuomo’s embarrassing hip-hop posturing on “California Snow” (“This is the definition of flow, woo! / Nobody cold as this, woo!”) The gang are clearly having a hell of a time, and you wind up feeling it, too.

Closing thoughts

I’ll be the first to admit it: These records aren’t especially great. They’re not liable to reconvert many lapsed Weezer fans. People probably won’t write books and essays 20 years from now that gush endlessly about how The Teal / Black Albums shaped their generation. And yes, the lads may never return to the level of greatness they achieved in their early ‘90s heyday. But what they do offer is a solid hour or so’s worth of harmless, frivolous, catchy fun. In spite of everything, I enjoyed them, and I enjoy Weezer. So there.

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