On Weezer's Mystifying Red Album
I've had a three-second loop from the new Weezer record stuck in my head for about 48 hours now: Rivers Cuomo snarling "I don't wanna get wit'cher program" in my ear as I eat, as I sleep, as I stagger around in the heat. As a statement of defiance, it's actually quite soothing, those punky, overdriven guitars a source of great comfort and nostalgia. As always, it sounds like there's a lot of them — a George Lucas CGI army's worth. As with George's craft, alas, the years have not been kind to our heroes. But they've been kinder.
The band's sixth full-length, Weezer, a.k.a The Red Album, is the most bewildering assault yet from an exceptionally strange band, vacillating from terrible to terribly affecting at Cuomo's whim, but insouciant and profoundly immature throughout. The bit stuck in my head is awkwardly tacked on to the very end of "Dreamin'," a sweet, fanciful power-pop monument to his refusal to accept reality or adult responsibility, complete with a lovingly rendered, multi-part vocal harmony describing one of his daydreams in detail ("I am running!/Through the meadow!"). Two of the first three songs rhyme something with underwear. Hit single "Pork and Beans" concludes its magnificently bratty chorus with "I don't give a hoot about what you think," the key word there being hoot. "Troublemaker" declares Cuomo's intent to be a rock star and avoid banal nine-to-five domesticity, which he summarizes as "Marrying a beyotch/And having seven keyods." And "Everybody Get Dangerous" is a ludicrous ode to suburban rebellion: playing hockey without pads, lighting roadkill on fire, going 65 in a 25 in your parents' Tercel. The song begins thus:
When I was younger I used to go and tip cows for fun, yeah/Actually I didn't do that 'Cause I didn't want the cow to be sad/But some of my friends did.
The whole album feels like a 16-year-old's histrionic temper tantrum; on Tuesday, Rivers will turn 38. Whether your consider The Red Album deliciously childlike or unbearably stupid depends entirely on your mood: As a six-minute litmus test, proceed directly to "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)." The parenthetical is not a joke; the song might be. It's a rock opera, I suppose, aimed at a generation that first heard "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a joke in the Wayne's World movie. In intervals of 20 seconds or so, it goes from dorky rap-metal to wimpy white-guy folk to military-parade choral harmony (quote: "After the havoc that I'm gonna wreak/No more words will critics have to speak") to yelpy piano pop to synth-driven new wave to a Shakespearean spoken-word interval wherein Cuomo reiterates: "If you don't like it, you can shove it. But you don't like it — you love it." Weezer's greatest moments have always sounded slightly deranged: Consider the mighty Pinkerton's semi-erotic pleas to the band's barely legal Japanese-schoolgirl fans. But "Greatest Man" proudly invites you to conclude that these dudes have lost it.
By "it," I mean their minds, not necessarily their touch. And even if you initially respond to the tune with revulsion, keep in mind that everyone hated Pinkerton at first too, and even 2005's reviled Make Believe generated the band's biggest single, "Beverly Hills." It's just that The Red Album follows in that song's footsteps: lyrics so aggressively dumb they're almost genius. Almost. Is Cuomo that inarticulate, or is he amazingly good at articulating the feelings of inarticulate teenagers in their own words? Much of this record isn't so much good as it is entertainingly mystifying: a 16-car pileup that may or may not have been staged for your benefit. "Heart Songs," from the title on down, is objectively lousy: a lazy frat-pop groove (sounds like LFO, actually) wherein Rivers basically just lists bands and songs he likes, with phrasing so stilted and obvious that you can barely call the result "lyrics": "Mr. Springsteen said he had a hungry heart," "Michael Jackson's in the mirror," etc. But he sounds so reverent — so daunted, almost, by the greatness of Joan Baez, Quiet Riot, etc. — that the result is winsome anyway, especially when he harks back to 1991 ("I wasn't having any fun") and someone throws on a record with a particularly disturbing cover: "Had a baby on it/He was naked on it." Rivers Cuomo considers "Smells Like Teen Spirit" one of his "heart songs." What the hell do you say to that?
Ultimately, there's too much here to bemusedly puzzle over and not enough to just crank up. The record goes into freefall on the back end, when the famously autocratic Cuomo inexplicably lets the other dudes take a crack at fronting the band: Brian Bell sings like Uncle Kracker; Pat Wilson sings like the drummer. So perhaps it's best just to fixate on what everyone's gonna remember about The Red Album: "Pork and Beans." Specifically, the video. Honestly, the video's pretty brilliant: a joyous summit of various YouTube superstars (the "Numa Dance" guy, the "Chocolate Rain" guy, the "Leave Britney Alone" guy) run gleefully amok. That shot of the band, in white lab coats and goggles, rocking out while standing completely still as a series of Mentos-and-Diet-Coke geysers erupt behind them is fantastic, a perfect encapsulation of their goofy/awkward appeal. But the undeniable chorus aside, the song itself is lyrically daft as well, like some kind of songwriting improv challenge wherein Cuomo had to work in whoever or whatever popped up on his TV at the time: Rogaine, Oakley shades, Timbaland. Oakley shades? Really?
Thus, roughly 90 percent of my affection for the song is tied to the video. And while it's tempting to interpret the clip as Weezer's way of soothing and defending all these easily mocked YouTube guys — "I'm-a do the things that I wanna do/I ain't got a thing to prove to you" — it's highly probable that the "Chocolate Rain" guy long ago stopped giving a hoot about what you think; Weezer needs his cachet far more than he needs Weezer's. "Pork and Beans" will go down as a loopy tribute to the fluky Internet superstars who now command the audience and affection that the old alt-rock elite just can't rouse up anymore. The Red Album is an often fascinating glimpse into how a band deals with that, but it also underscores how it happened in the first place.
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