Weezer’s “Lost” Science-Fiction Rock Opera Is Better Than Almost Everything They’ve Released in the Last 15 Years
They had two great albums: 'Blue' and 'Pinkerton.' But what about the unreleased sophomore album that came between the two?
Even the biggest artists in the world have songs you haven’t heard. In our series Z-Sides, we shine light on those rare tracks and deep cuts that only hardcores know word for word. We've featured tracks from The Cure, Prince, Britney Spears, and more. This time: Weezer's long lost space opera.
The years since Pinkerton's release have troubled every Weezer fan. Of the numerous albums, solo records, and compilations, genuinely listenable follow-ups were few. One record features some dumb guy from Lost on the cover and, in 2009, the group released a song with Lil Wayne, the nadir in any alternative rock band’s career. It wasn’t that they were getting old; it’s that Weezer had become so bad that, at one point, fans offered them $10 million dollars to split up and fuck off.
Weezer’s story, and downfall, has been well documented. But there’s one key piece of information that’s missing: a record that was planned between the group’s debut and sophomore blessings of perfection, and was left on the cutting room floor.
The energy from those first two records—Blue Album and Pinkerton—was an angst-fueled power-punch that hasn’t been seen since. They're probably the last truly great things the group ever did. I mean, I would be lying if I said anything from Raditude could speak to me on the same level as “Across The Sea” does when I’m exiling myself in my room and feeling like an abject loser. That’s the reason why this “lost” record is paramount to the Weezer story. Listening to it is enough to rid Hurley, Make Believe, and Raditude from existence.
This is the story.
Blue Album had been released to critical acclaim and Rivers Cuomo, a maverick in despondency, had mixed feelings about its success. He was happy but, like a student with a perfect grade point average graduating into anxious uncertainty, the future had started to freak him out. It was during this period that he would write a collection of songs that become known as Songs from the Black Hole: a science fiction rock opera, set in 2126, about “relationships, stardom, and life in Weezer.”Rivers had been inspired by musicals—Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, the sort of thing your mom probably plays in the car—because they married music and drama in an exclusive and spellbinding union. Feelings can be explored under the veil of theater without being judged, and a large scale composition seemed apt for Rivers to delve into his inner-thoughts. So, he set about writing an album which flowed seamlessly from one track to the next; think Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon but with overwrought space travel and distortion rather than rose-tinted fantasia made by narcissistic egotists.
The story focused on a very specific theme. In 2126 the spaceship Betsy II—taken from the name of Weezer’s first tour bus, Betsy—would embark on a galaxy-wide mission. “The whole thing was really an analogy for taking off, going out on the road and up the charts with a rock band,” Rivers told Rolling Stone in the November 15, 2007 issue, “which is what was happening to me at the time I was writing this and feeling like I was lost in space."
The ship’s crew were to be voiced by musicians, who would play characters and tell the story, exactly like a musical. Weezer members Brian Bell and Matt Sharp would play some of this happy crew, thrilled about their intergalactic adventure, symbolizing the side of Cuomo that was excited about success, and he would play himself, the ship’s captain with mixed feelings. Along the way he would run into two women, voiced by Rachel Haden of The Rentals and Joan Wasser of The Dambuilders, whose roles mirrored his real life relationships. The story concludes with Rivers reaching his destination and feeling disillusioned, longing to return to a simpler life.Basically, the concept was bat-shit crazy ridiculous.
Rivers had been writing the record while hospitalised for months after extensive leg surgery, and as the painkillers wore off, he found the idea of a science fiction rock opera “too whimsical” - which is a shame because it’s not; it’s fucking rad. In 1995, after enrolling at Harvard, Rivers changed the concept of the album from space rock to the Madame Butterfly-influenced theme that permeates Pinkerton. Songs From The Black Hole was abandoned.
Ten years later and the space opera still hadn’t been released. Fans petitioned the band to release it, with one competition winner—having been given the opportunity to join the band on stage—even attempting to coax them into playing “Blast Off” live; a failed attempt that was laughed off as Rivers pushed him away from the microphone. The official album has never seen the light of day, but thankfully several songs have leaked over the years.
Five SFTBH demos—“Blast Off!,” “Longtime Sunshine,” "Who You Callin' Bitch?," "Dude, We're Finally Landing," and "Superfriend”—were released on Rivers solo record, Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, in 2007, and three more appeared on his follow up record in 2008. Three copies of a demo version of Songs from the Black Hole are also known to exist in CD-R form—two in long time collaborator Karl Koch's car, one locked in Rivers musical dungeon.
A few songs leaked back in 2002 though, and put together with the other excerpts (and thanks to the internet), you can hear most of the album in full. Take a listen above.
You'll recognize reworks of “Getchoo,” “Tired of Sex,” “No Other One,” and “Why Bother” on Pinkerton, but they all began life on Songs from the Black Hole, and three more tracks surfaced as b-sides. This is not a bad thing—they’re all great songs. But thinking about it, the release of a nail-biting record like Pinkerton over a grandiose space-rock opera is maybe the reason the band have barely released a good record since. Pinkerton was like peering into Rivers' diary, and when critics panned it I don’t think he ever truly recovered the backlash, making him apprehensive to ever open up again. There’s a reason it took them five years to write their third record, Green Album, and there’s a reason it was as emotionally detached as a teaspoon.
Pinkerton isn’t a bad second prize; it’s arguably the best thing they’ve ever released (fight me!). But I can’t help feel had they released Songs from the Black Hole instead, things could have gone differently. There’s something in that record—maybe the songwriting, or the fact Rivers’ emotions are shielded within storytelling, or the fact it’s set in fucking space—that suggests critics would have been more receptive, saving Weezer for the immediate future.
Things are okay now though. Everything Will Be Alright In The End was released in October and it is an unashamed pop-rock extravaganza with no remorse. Them solos and hooks; they’re great. The band has accepted their position too and feel comfortable.
But seriously, the last decade has been difficult. When Rivers grew a moustache, started to look like a midwest theme park employee, and wrote a track about children’s food; I thought about Songs from the Black Hole. When he disadvantaged the world with “Magic,” I drifted away and cleansed my ears with “Blast Off.” After I put my dead hamster in the ground, I genuinely listened to “I Just Threw Out The Love of My Dreams,” and maybe shed a tear.
What I’m saying is—one of the best albums Weezer wrote has never been released. It beats singing "it's Weezer and it's Weezy" and it deserves to be ahead of most records in every Weezer fan's collection.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil