The Weezer Paradox: Why Can't Bands with Unlimited Resources Make Good Albums?
For a while there back in the 90s, Weezer were essentially a perfect band. I’m talking about the rare type of perfection that doesn’t come from popping cheekbones or marketing gimmicks. Instead I’m referring to the fact that there existed an era where not only the band's first two full-lengths Weezer (a.k.a. "The Blue Album") and Pinkerton were essentially flawless, but every single B-side ranging from "Jamie" from DGC Rarities Volume 1 compilation to "Susanne" and "You Gave Your Love To Me Softly" (from the Mallrats and Angus soundtracks, respectively), would be most rock acts' crowning achievement. From the outside, it appeared as if the process was effortless to Rivers Cuomo & Co.—and while Pinkerton may not have made the same initial commercial splash as their debut, time has proved that the latter had an immense influence on the next generation of emo acts who took solace in Cuomo’s introspective musings on rejection. Seriously, can you name another song that tackles a non-requited crush on a lesbian with as much energy and economy as “Pink Triangle”?
When the band announced they’d be getting back together in 2000 after a three-year hiatus, people were understandably excited. Here was a band with a cannon of music that included everything from “Say It Ain’t So” to “El Scorcho” getting ready to unleash a new set of works on the world, the way we all wished J.D. Salinger would. Then “The Green Album” came out and although it featured Mikey Welsh instead of Matt Sharp, everything from the artwork to the use of producer Ric Ocasek seemed to indicate a return to form for the celebrated geek rock act. Except it wasn’t. I’d like to think that even the most strident Weezer supporters would admit that a song like “Hash Pipe” would never have fit on the first two albums, not because Cuomo had vastly evolved as a songwriter, but because it completely lacked the spark and character that typified the band’s earlier works. In fact, Weezer reportedly wrote 75 songs for this album yet this was the best collection they could come up with.
From there it just got worse (and so did the album titles). To illustrate this point, I tried listening to a random song off the band’s 2010 full-length Hurley. It’s called “Where’s My Sex?” but instead of being a realistic search for a respective partner, it sees Cuomo literally looking for sex as a tangible object over a clichéd chord progression that drives home the point that the band truly have lost sight of the ability to connect with listeners on an emotional level. It’s not clever or funny, it comes off as more desperate than anything else.
I'm not saying that Cuomo has to continue to write songs about his love of Asian women for the next three decades but there is no question that regardless of what the band’s motivations are, their post-Pinkerton output has shifted the honest insecurity that typified their early releases into something “goofy” for the sake of it. This isn’t to single Weezer out, there are plenty of bands who reject their past in order to move forward but on a base level, it’s just not relatable to me, which is why I no longer get excited to listen a new Weezer album.
The examples of this are countless. For instance, it’s hard to believe that the same three guys who played on Metallica’s Ride The Lightning in 1984 also played on Reload thirteen years later. The strangest part is that the band still play their classic thrash material relatively proficiently live (well, Lars, maybe not so much) which begs the question: Why can't they write another good album? Even when Metallica teamed up with Bob Rock, who produced their commercial breakthrough Metallica (also known as "The Black Album) for 2003's St. Anger his solution was to record the snare drum like it was inside of a garbage can, which we might believe if we didn't see how many Basquiat originals Ulrich owned in Some Kind Of Monster.
Speaking of that documentary (which is the best thing the band have released since …And Justice For All), it also chronicles this exact issue from James Hetfield’s clunky lyric writing (“My lifestyle determines my death style”) to Ulrich’s inability to play a simple drum beat without editing and the unbelievably wasteful reality of a band who build a studio they never use while they dole out money on a therapist and make arbitrary rules to try to keep the process moving forward. Clearly, the lackluster sonic output isn’t a lack of effort coming from the band and it’s clear that they don’t want to live in their own shadow forever, the issue is that these guys seem to have gravitated so far away from their roots as East Bay thrash upstarts that they literally have nothing in common with those long-haired shredders who penned breakneck songs like “Battery.”
As much as I hate to say it, Green Day are another one. One of my first concerts ever was seeing them on the Dookie tour with Samiam opening. Even though I wasn't old enough to drive, I remember the show perfectly, specifically the fact until that point every punk anthem the group penned was razor sharp and catchy as hell. The trio seemed to understandably stall out a little bit on 1995's Insomniac and from there it's been a steady decline with the exception of 2004's American Idiot. (Can you believe the band's "comeback album" is nearly a decade old?) Again, I just tried to listen to a song called “A Little Boy Named Train” from the band’s 2012 album ¡TRÉ! and while it sounds undeniably like Green Day it’s so polished and formulaic that it’s no wonder why the album is part of a trilogy of songs that are largely indistinguishable from each other. Although we will say that Billie Joe Armstrong’s inability to age still impresses us on a daily basis.
The examples go on and on. There was a time when the Offspring were a high-energy punk band who sold 20 million copies of an album that was teeming with angst. Flash forward four years later and all you’ve got is a guitarist named Noodles and gimmicky songs like “Pretty Fly For A White Guy” that’s entire hook is an attempt to capitalize on a shirt design you’d see at Hot Topic. We’d like to imagine that these guys have moved on and matured since then but then we tried listening to their latest album “Cruising California (Bumpin’ In My Truck)” which features rapping, AutoTune and another lazy lyrical premise and it’s clear that these guys are struggling to make themselves relevant to a pop world that’s light years away from their area of expertise. It would be depressing, really, if it weren’t so unlistenable.
Admittedly no artist is perfect and even Bruce Springsteen has his occasional Human Touch. However, there are plenty of bands in the same world as these acts that have continued to stay relevant. A great example of this is NOFX. You may not still listen to them but the band’s more recent output features the same fire they’ve always had because they’ve never had to question it. Correspondingly, Rancid’s Let The Dominoes Fall isn’t…And Out Come The Wolves but at least it doesn’t have a song about Tim Armstrong’s obsession with Cronuts as a pandering effort to push something relatable onto a younger audience.
I’m not saying that these aforementioned artists shouldn’t be allowed to grow up (although, Noodles, come on). I’m saying there’s a way to do that without sacrificing your dignity and identity. The fact is there will never be another Pinkerton the same way there will never be another Punk In Drublic and that’s fine. The problems seem to occur when bands start trying to write songs for other people instead of writing from their hearts. Just remember, your favorite artist can give their love to you softly—but they can take it away just as quickly.
Now that’s something really blue.
It pained Jonah Bayer to write this article. Just look at his Twitter handle for Chrissake. - @mynameisjonah