Wednesday, October 8, 2014

album review: 'everything will be alright in the end' by weezer

It's almost a cliche these days to begin a Weezer review talking about Pinkerton. Because let's be honest, it's an album that took Rivers Cuomo's band into a dark place that split critics and sent fans away in droves. Sure, the album is praised as a classic now, but it sure as hell wasn't when it was released, featuring abrasive production that some sardonic critics branded 'Pavement-lite' and lyrics that went to the uncomfortable dark recesses of Cuomo's mind, with all of its depression, absentee father figures, and myriad fears and insecurities about women. Coming off of The Blue Album, it was a massive change in focus, but keep in mind this was also 1996. Sure, the emo crowd of the time embraced Pinkerton, but the mainstream fans that came for 'Say It Ain't So' and 'Buddy Holly' and instead got 'El Scorcho' and 'Pink Triangle'? Once again, 1996 - even the Brit power pop of Oasis and Blur wasn't getting this explicit or off-kilter, and in a situation where the paradigm was shifting from Nirvana to Aqua, Pinkerton was unlike anything else. 

And its failure crushed Rivers Cuomo. He bared his soul to the world and the world spat in his face, so after a five year hiatus the band came back with the Green Album and the change was stark. Not only were the heavy shields of irony in place, but the loss of Matt Sharp's subtle bass harmonies and lighter than ever production meant the songs were all the more ephemeral and empty. For as good of a songwriter as Rivers Cuomo is - and let's make this clear, he can write great melody lines and is a solid songwriter in terms of lyrical poetry - but it was a mask. And nowhere was that more vivid than 'Beverly Hills', the successful Weezer comeback single that owed its airplay to the pop rock boom and nothing else because that song is one monster riff and that's it. It's a shockingly empty song - empty of ideas and soul, two things that Weezer used to have in spades. And from there, the next slew of Weezer albums fell into that mold, with only occasional flashes of brilliance to sustain the band as their output petered out at the end of the decade.

And so I wasn't exactly surprised to see that Weezer was returning to the original well for their newest album Everything Will Be Alright In The End, a title making a statement to both Weezer fans and critics, the latter of whom had more than their fair share of reasons to be skeptical. And I have to admit, it was really damn hard to work up any excitement about a new Weezer record, even despite the reassurances from the band that 'No, really, it's going to be more like Pinkerton!' I hate to say this, but I'm not looking for another Pinkerton so much as I'm looking for Rivers Cuomo to actually say something that comes from some place real and not just empty artifice. Did that happen?

Well, it's tough to say. Let me start by repeating the common consensus - yes, this is the best Weezer album in well over a decade, and features all the things that have, traditionally, made Weezer very listenable even when they haven't been great. And yet to some extent I get the feeling that the expectations for this album are in a peculiar place, in that it'll always be compared with their past work, both good and bad, and this can mean one of two things based upon the critic's history with Weezer. Those who split with them right after Pinkerton and haven't experienced the past fifteen years will probably judge this album more harshly than those who have been with the band through every step of the way. 

And here's the thing: this is not a record you can, as a listener and critic, take out of the context of history, because thematically and lyrically it's entrenched in that history. Not only is the album filled with direct callbacks to Pinkerton, it's also one that sees Rivers Cuomo finally coming back to the earnest feelings that drove that classic or at least trying to peel back some of the artifice. And yet lyrically, you can tell that this album splits into three separate pieces: the songs intended to reassure long-time Weezer fans that, yes, they are going back to their original well of influences; the songs that seem to be deliberately trying to ape Pinkerton's formula; and the songs that work in the spirit of Pinkerton while containing more original material. And while the last category features both some of Weezer's best and most interesting tracks on this album, it doesn't exactly surprise me that the other two pieces get plenty of attention - because with this sort of album, it's almost expected.

And I have to be honest, they're also the pieces of the album that don't really land a lot of impact with me. Sure, a song like 'Back To The Shack' is a straightforward message to the fans that yes, they're going back to their ramshackle pile of influences. But when you throw in lines like 'I forgot that disco sucks', which is your standard metaphorical potshot taken at selling out to a pop audience and not rocking hardcore, I couldn't help but roll my eyes, because Weezer has always had a pop focus, even at their best. And whenever Weezer tries to go for rock or punk swagger like on 'Eulogy For A Rock Band' or 'I've Had It Up To Here', it rings just as hollow. The songs looking to mimic the moral ambiguity and situations of Pinkerton, like the creepy and manipulative 'My Lonely Girl', the petulant duet with Bethany Cosentino 'Go Away', or the album opener 'Ain't Got Nobody' fare a little bit better and do have some nuance, but lyrically they ring as a little thin and uninspired to me. While they try to call back to Pinkerton, they lack some of the descriptive flair that made that record iconic, and reflects part of the problem of going back to that well - if you're going to repeat similar songs and not do enough to take them in a fresh direction, the album can feel like a retread. It doesn't help matters that Rivers Cuomo's singing has gotten significantly less visceral, choosing to go into a really thin, multi-tracked falsetto than shout or scream, and it doesn't quite sound as potent. 

Now part of this comes around to production and instrumentation, with the former being handled by Ric Ocasek, who previously worked on The Blue Album and The Green Album. At first listen, the issue I have with him is mixing Cuomo's voice a little too low on a few tracks, which doesn't help his more expressive tones stand out, but my larger issue comes back to the instrumentation. Rivers Cuomo has gotten a lot of mileage out of writing sticky, catchy as hell melodies, and when the solos can stay on point and stick with them, you get some solid tunes. If I were to nitpick, it's more tied to guitar tone - Weezer's been going for a rougher, fuzzier tone for a while now, and while it's good, there are points where it feels lacking in real fire beyond the heavy simmer it develops. That's not saying there aren't great moments: the chugging riff on 'Ain't Got Nobody', the stuttering riff with the backing vocals on 'I've Had It Up To Here', the melodic interplay on 'Da Vinci', the harmonica and acoustic strumming that erupts into a kickass bass groove on 'Cleopatra', the swirling heavy eruption on 'Foolish Father' that features one of the best melodic solos on the album, and the glorious excess of 'The Futurescope Trilogy' - but this album could have afforded to rock a little harder and give the guitars a little more punch.

But I will say this: there are songs on this album where Weezer and Rivers Cuomo did exactly what I was hoping he'd do: show signs of growing up. You get fragments of it all throughout the album, from the acknowledgment he made up with his father on 'Back To The Shack' to the steps towards independence from his issues with women on 'Cleopatra'. And where chunks of Pinkerton felt intentionally awkward and confused as Cuomo went to uncomfortable extremes in his obsessions, 'Da Vinci' shows him at a loss for words and taking the slightest moment of pause. Hell, 'Foolish Father' is a message to a girl to reconcile with her father that highlights his love for her, their family connection, and most importantly, his humanity. It's probably my favourite song on this album because it's such a clear mirror for River Cuomo getting over his own issues and acknowledging that, yes, everything will be alright in the end.

So look, I'm not going to say this album is better than The Blue Album or Pinkerton - it's not - but it's finally a sign that Weezer has managed to reinvigorate a formula that gave them so much success, staying power, and a diehard fanbase. What's better is that they've shown that they're willing to move forward, clear away the past and show some real artistic evolution. And on that note, this record is a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. For the first time in fifteen years, Weezer has been able to reassure me that it'll all come together in the end - and this time, I believe them. 

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