Back in 2005, Weezer released Make Believe, an album that’s critically considered to be the worst they’ve ever put out. I was 15-years-old, a freshman in high school, armed with a brand new iPod Shuffle and no musical taste to put it to any good use. It held 240 songs, and I don’t think my music collection even came close to filling it to capacity. I was embarrassingly naive when it came to music back then—and now, still, if I’m being totally honest—and the music I listened to then was more or less background noise. Whatever I heard playing on the radio while my mom drove me to school was the music I listened to; think Maroon 5, The Black Eyed Peas, and whatever else was pumping out of LA’s top 40 stations at the time.
So, Make Believe. Weezer’s worst album ever. Their way of saying “fuck you” to the fans that loved them since they started, since the Blue Album was released in 1994, to the release of Pinkerton in 1996, and even when they put out the Green Album in 2001, also known as The Beginning Of The End. Right? I’m not so sure.
“Beverly Hills.” Remember that song, with it’s dumb lyrics and catchy as hell chorus? Some might have you think it’s one of the worst songs they’ve ever recorded, a glaring point in Rivers Cuomo’s career where he ran completely out of creative integrity. Maybe it is one of their worst songs, but I love it. It was the first Weezer song I’d ever consciously listened to and thought, hey, I like this, it’s fun and I’m going to listen to more of these guys! I was 15-years-old and didn’t care about what Pitchfork said because I didn’t even know what Pitchfork was. ”Beverly Hills” was my gateway drug. Had I not loved that song and loaded it on my iPod Shuffle and listened to it on repeat every day for months, I wouldn’t have grown to love Weezer the way I do now, and I doubt I would love music the way I do now, either.
I was never one of the cool kids who at 14 or 15 was listening to old Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana albums. It wasn’t until I was 18 or so that I started listening to what most would consider “good music.” I’ve always been late to the party in that regard, and that’s as true today as it was then. I’d never listened to a Springsteen album until just a couple years ago. The first time I listened to an R.E.M. album? Two months ago.
So now that I’ve established my critical taste in music as haphazard at best, you’re probably wondering how I’m possibly qualified to write about Weezer for an entire week. Here’s my answer: I don’t think many people are actually “qualified” to write about music. I don’t know of any art form that creates as subjective and personal opinions as music does; music is hard to criticize and even harder to defend.
The Blue Album came out when I was four-years-old. Pinkerton when I was six. I didn’t grow up with “good Weezer”, but you know what, for a lot of kids, “good Weezer” means “Troublemaker” and “Perfect Situation” and “Island in the Sun.” I’m not going to talk about why one Weezer album is critically better than another. I’m going to talk about my first concert (go ahead, guess who it was). I’m going to talk about how fucking great it feels to drive up the coast of California with the windows rolled down listening to the entire Blue Album, plus the B-sides. And I’m going to talk about how “Only In Dreams” may be the greatest song I’ve ever heard. I’m going to talk about why it all means so much to me.
Quick sidenote: bands here are typically covered chronologically, from their oldest albums to their newest, but I’d like to go through Weezer’s discography in order of my least to most favorite. Throughout the week, I’ll be sprinkling some random stories here and there that don’t quite fit in with album-specific essays, as well as the usual song and video posts each day.
Okay, let’s do this!
“(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” was, at first listen, a glimmer of hope for Raditude, Weezer’s seventh album. A few months before the album came out, this single hit the airwaves and got a lot of Weezer fans thinking, “Hey, I don’t think I hate this.”
It’s a fun, catchy song, and a great sing-along story of young romance. Rivers’ lyrics are surprisingly earnest considering his track record since the Green Album, but what I find most interesting about Raditude’s opening track is how it tells a real story, something that harkens back to 1990s-era Weezer, but with one glaring difference: it’s past tense.
Rivers Cuomo brings us along for a ride that in all likelihood happened more than two decades ago. The Girl wearing a Slayer t-shirt, eating dinner at her parents’, watching a movie while hoping she’d make a move (why won’t she just make a move?!). The whole song is Rivers begging a girl to take the next step, and these stories are hard to take seriously when the legitimacy of his feelings are totally up in the air. I suppose it’s easy for young guys to empathize with what he’s talking about, but the lyrics are telling: his feelings are dated, and he has a hard time investing real emotion in his music unless his words took place a long time ago.
He’s a married man with a daughter, and now he’s just having silly, unsupervised fun, as evidenced by every other song on Raditude. They’re all playful and some will likely get you moving your head up and down. I have fond memories listening to other songs off Raditude. “Put Me Back Together”, “Tripping Down The Freeway”, and “Let It All Hang Out” are all so ridiculously catchy that I found it hard to not play them on repeat while I drove to and from work when this album came out. No one else was in the car when I did, so no harm no foul, right? On “Can’t Stop Partying”, Rivers invites Lil Wayne to rap about, oh, you know, partying; something about mixing alcohol with pharmacuetical drugs, and wait, did you hear that? Yep, an F-word. On a Weezer album.
With Raditude, Rivers just didn’t give a fuck. It’s funny, too, because most Weezer fans I’ve met despise Make Believe far more than they do Raditude, and Make Believe was an album Rivers actully did give a fuck about. Raditude is all over the place, from power-pop to rap to the just plain bad (see: “Love Is the Answer”).
Rivers Cuomo’s intentions have always been hard to pinpoint. He certainly doesn’t make reactionary music; if he did, we would’ve had a Blue Album Part 2 as soon as everyone with a keyboard and something to say beat the living shit out of Make Believe. Rivers’ unpredictability has become almost predictable; he goes from obsessively crafting an album as if trying to please everyone on the planet, to making an album where you’d swear he was just fucking around as if he had nothing better to do. Make Believe is the former, and that’s up next.
“I know everyone’s coming from their own perspectives, their own tastes. And no record is right for everyone. And it’s interesting to me that a certain segment of the indie community feels compelled to focus on Weezer and judge them by indie standards by which we’re pretty much always going to fail. But they don’t pay so much attention to other more mainstream alternative rock bands. So I don’t get it. But I don’t really focus on that so much. I focus on the people that love us and love what we’re doing and that’s where I get my feedback from.”
How’s this for a blast from the past? Rivers Cuomo, along with Weezer’s first bassist, Matt Sharp, play coy as they co-host an episode of Alternative Nation. Matt jokingly telling Kennedy to ask them what it was like to work with Ric Ocasek is especially funny. ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” held the number one spot, while R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” was also in the top 10. It’s a nice reminder of how long Weezer’s been around; 2012 marks their 20th year as a band.
Make Believe is a lot like Pinkerton.
Hear me out.
Weezer is, more than anything, a pop band. Their biggest hits are about surfing, living in Beverly Hills, dressing like a dork, and soaking up the rays on an imaginary island. This is true for every album they’ve recorded, though two have more in common than any others: Pinkerton and Make Believe.
Pinkerton revealed an entirely new, raw, and emotionally damaged side of Rivers Cuomo. The songs were rough, the vocals were scratchy, and the lyrics were incredibly personal. Make Believe was Rivers’ feelings all over again, but embarrassingly sanitized.
A good handful of Make Believe’s 12 songs are still good pop songs, though. “Beverly Hills” was an enormous hit, becoming Weezer’s first ever #1 single. “Perfect Situation” is a great song, and I’ll stand by that to my grave. Maybe you had to have been be a skinny, acne-ridden teenager like myself when this song was released to have any positive feelings towards it. It’s about not having what you want, and knowing that, maybe someday, you will. It’s something a lot of high school kids can relate to. The first 20 seconds of the song still get my blood pumping. There’s real adrenaline there.
Most of the lyrics off Make Believe barely scratch the surface of actual emotion—certainly more than most recent Weezer records, but that’s not saying much. But I wonder: is that really so bad? Fluffly lyrics and fun music: doesn’t that describe most pop music? Weezer doesn’t get a pass because they made something so much better a long time ago; one reviewer even suggested that their first two albums be retroactively considered worthless because of Make Believe.
On “Hold Me”, Rivers croons: “I am terrified of all things / Frightened of the dark / I am / You are taller than a mountain / Deeper than the sea / You are.” The chorus continues the melodrama: “Hold me / Hold me / Take me with you ‘cause I’m lonely.” I don’t doubt Rivers Cuomo ever felt this way, but the way in which he puts these feelings to paper was clearly the result of lazy writing. Then again, they’re more honest than most anything Weezer has put out since Make Believe’s 2005 release. “Butterfly”, the last track off of Pinkerton, and one the best songs Rivers has ever written, closes with these lines: “I’m Sorry / I’m Sorry / I’m Sorry.” Had Rivers sung these lyrics for a song off Make Believe, it would’ve been just another personality-lacking song on a personality-lacking album. When he sings “I’m Sorry” in “Butterfly”, we actually believe him.
Weezer - The Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World (Here’s the Spotify link for higher quality)
Raditude may be my least favorite Weezer album, but “The Prettiest Girl In The Whole Wide World” is one of my favorite post-Pinkerton songs. Written in 1997 and originally included in Rivers’ second solo album, Alone II, Weezer finally gave it some polish and released it with Raditude as a bonus song on the deluxe edition of the album. The new version is a diligent cover of Rivers’ original recording, with his electric guitar repeating itself throughout the song in an arresting, fist pumping kind of way. The “old Weezer” sound fans are so often dreaming about is totally dependent on Rivers’ songwriting abilities, because this song is proof that Weezer can still make a great tune.
(Above: Rivers Cuomo and his first guitar, given to him for his 14th birthday in 1984.)
Here’s the thing about writing about Weezer: unless we’re talking about their first two albums, the conversation becomes redundant and it becomes redundant quick.
See, the thing about the Green Album is that Rivers just gave up on Weezer; he just completely gave up.
Maladroit is utterly unremarkable rock’n’roll lacking any depth from the real rock music Weezer made with Pinkerton.
The Red Album continues Weezer’s decent into the most predictable, boring, emotionless band around.
Hurley is a step up from Raditude, but is that really saying much? The lyrical creativity is still gone. Come back, Rivers, come back! See the light!
See what I mean?
There are a handful of really great songs on every post-Pinkerton record Weezer’s put out, so to avoid redundancy until I get to Pinkerton and Blue Album (tomorrow and Saturday, mark your calendars!), I’ll be going through some of the highlights as well as my personal favorites from Hurley, Red, Maladroit, and Green (that’s in order of least to most favorite, by the way).
Weezer - Unspoken
Sometimes all it takes is one song to challenge your feelings about an entire album, and it’s “Unspoken” that makes it a lot easier to forgive the other mostly disappointing tracks off Hurley, Weezer’s eighth studio album. It harkens back to “Undone” and even “Only In Dreams” and outshines most anything they’ve done in recent memory.
Rivers’ lyrics seem genuine enough, especially when you hear the following song’s chorus, which consists of gems like “Where’s my sex? / I thought it was here” and “I can’t go out without my sex / It’s cold outside if my toes get wet.” In an interview with Spin, Rivers explained the origin of the song:
“Unspoken” was written right after I got married and after living alone for so many years, having everything exactly how I wanted it, suddenly I’m living with somebody else and I have to start making compromises in my lifestyle and boy, part of my mind was really unhappy about having to compromise. It was just a real adjustment coming from my previous lifestyle.
Could it be that all it takes for Rivers to write a great song is for him to first be unhappy? “Memories”, the second standout song off Hurley, is another excellent song. In it, Rivers reminisces about Weezer’s good old days, and how much he misses them. The lyrics are real and personal. Add to that the band’s classic sound and we have a song that we can truly enjoy and even empathize with, too.
So how did “Unspoken” and “Memories” end up on an otherwise forgettable album? Rivers still has the potential to write great songs, and yet most of his creative output since Pinkerton has been released to critical disappointment, much of it deservedly so. I’m not so sure we can call Rivers’ condition laziness; he pumped out six albums in less than a decade after releasing the Green Album. He’s anything but lazy, so what is he? Indifferent? Is making music his way of filling his time, and sometimes, rarely these days, something good comes out of his obsession? I’m going to touch on all this in a longer post, so stay tuned.
(I also recommend watching this acoustic, stripped-down version of “Unspoken”, it packs less of a punch than the original but it’s great nonetheless.)