Monday, April 4, 2016

album review: 'weezer (the white album)' by weezer

I don't normally talk about artistic legacy on this show, mostly because it'd be unbelievably arrogant of me to assume that I could ever dictate the course of history with one of these reviews. At the end of the day, history is going to proceed as it may, and how much any critic's singular opinion might matter is a complex question. Maybe in the years where singular critical voices had more power and were more recognizable - which paradoxically in the age of YouTube personalities might become a 'thing' again - but when most people read Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, they consider the review a reflection of the outlet's opinion, not of the individual critic who wrote it, and those outlets have more clout than I can see myself having for several years, at the very least.

That said, when you consider the artistic legacy of an act like Weezer, how can you best describe it? A few solid to excellent albums in the 90s, a return to form in the 2010s with Everything Will Be Alright In The End, and between them a wasteland of records that at best were okay and at worst were asinine and insufferable. Because make no mistake, Weezer's been around now for over twenty years, and that length of time becomes significant when you realize how much of their discography doesn't hold up as strongly as you'd hope, especially in comparison with their best. And sure, I can appreciate the relief that Weezer fans must have felt with that record in 2014 actually being good... but at the same time, I have not had any urge to go back and relisten to it in the same way I might Pinkerton or The Blue Album.

And as such I had a lot of mixed feelings about their upcoming newest self-titled record, otherwise known as the 'White Album' - ha, ha, very clever. And yet I had a lot of reservations about covering this, the first being that they pitched long-time collaborating producer Ric Ocasek for Jake Sinclair, the producer you might recognize behind 5 Seconds Of Summer or Taylor Swift. It also didn't help matters that the buzz was suggesting that not only was this record a concept album, but Rivers Cuomo had once again descended down the lyrical rabbit hole - or up his own ass, it's really interchangeable at this point - and I can't be the only one who has long ago ran out of patience for that. I mean, I like eccentric, out-there lyricism that can be tough to decode, but I have a line, and Rivers Cuomo frequently steps over it. So with all of those reservations, how did the 'white album' turn out?

Well, I'm not going to make many fans from this review, but let me dissuade some of you of presumptions you might have surrounding my opinion here. Because like many people, I wanted this record to be good or at the very least have more staying power or show themselves capable of evolving, given the love-letter to their past that was Everything Will Be Alright In The End - it was a chance for new beginnings, a fresh start. The 'White Album'... well, it's not that, at least not in the areas where it should be. What it is a sign is of Weezer slipping back towards bad habits - and unfortunately, the problem are across the board, to the point where I'm having a hard time calling this even a good album, let alone a great one.

Let's start, for a change, with lyrics and themes, where you'd think I'd have the majority of issues with this record - after all, isn't this where Rivers Cuomo could do the most damage with asinine lyrics? Really, the truth is despite some baffling lyrical choices - you can't drive a bus to the Galapagos Islands, describing women as alien creatures and evil if they don't say they love you, the continued Asian focus on the song about his wife 'King Of The World' that runs right up to the point of fetishization - I've heard far weirder lyrics, and the very loose conceptual framework of the album prevents it from going completely off the deep end. And I'm not going to deny that River Cuomo is a writer that has his moments crafting radio-friendly hooks that are just weird enough to stand out or have just enough detail to draw a lot of attention. Of course, it helps that Weezer's going back to a very familiar well and arc for this album: boy meets girl, girl breaks his heart, boy whines about it incessantly until you kind of want to slug him but at the same time feel for his introverted, hormonal, borderline-creepy longings. Hell, when Rivers Cuomo wrote Pinkerton, most guys around his age could empathize - and hell, when you go back through that record, you also got the feeling that he kind of knew just how bad it all looked and never framed the story as sympathetic.

But that was twenty years ago, and Rivers Cuomo is forty-five - and when you realize that so little of the subject matter, writing, and tone has evolved since Pinkerton, it's starts to get a little less excusable that it can feel as trite as it is. And sure, I can still embrace straightforward optimism like 'California Kids' or even 'Do You Wanna Get High', one of the nastier, sleazier songs about smoking up I've heard in some time, but 'Thank God For Girls'? I wanted to say that the subtext was intentional, showing the nerdy guy in a ugly submissive relationship - or on the sidelines obsessively craving it - with the framing to highlight just how creepy and borderline misogynist the entire scene was, perhaps with a bit of self-aware commentary... until I made the mistake of reading Rivers Cuomo's verified annotations on Genius. And while he's descended behind screens of self-aware ironic detachment before, I got the sinking feeling this is actually sincere and yet without the raw insight or cleverness or sense of humor to redeem it. For a counter-example, Father John Misty might be an enormous douchebag on I Love You, Honeybear, he tempers it with self-deprecating humour, real wit, and going over the top for maximum melodrama - something Weezer doesn't pull off. And believe me, it definitely colours how you see the rest of the record, because that sloppy framing keeps coming up, from the desperation between the lines on '(Girl We Got A) Good Thing' to the borderline pathetic whinging on 'L.A. Girlz' and 'Jacked Up', the former a dark mirror to the California optimism that piles on the condescension to boot. And while I wanted to like 'Endless Bummer' for trying to play his melancholy as more low key, it still struck me as adolescent whining, complaining for summer to just be over instead of learning anything - and the tone of the song makes it all the clear that any emotive connection comes from sympathizing with the protagonist, of which I have no desire to do.

Now part of this is Rivers Cuomo's fault - it's not like his vocal delivery is giving these songs any sort of gravitas or maturity or even self-aware comedy - but this is where we run into what I was dreading about this record: the production. And I'll say it after relistening to Everything Will Be Alright In The End before this: dropping Ric Ocasek was a mistake. I'm not sure if it's a matter of ability or poor production decisions, but in trying to bring back all of the rough edges of Weezer's 90s years, Jake Sinclair seems to have completely missed why so much of that material worked. I'd say the problem is the basslines - Sinclair said he worked more with bassist Scott Shriner here, but that's operating under an assumption you can hear the bass at all - but the levels are off all over the record. The guitars have edge and grit, and there are some decent rhythm lines here, but the squealing melodies either are stuck on staccato piano lines or are completely marginalized beneath cymbals that crack over everything else. And while there are a few good solos - 'California Girls', the meatier solo on 'L.A. Girlz', the ending solo on 'Endless Bummer' - much of the mixing wants to drown in feedback and yet never gives it a thick enough edge in the low-end to land impact, which leaves many of these tracks feeling muddier than they should. And none of it helps Rivers Cuomo, because not only are his vocals shoved right to the front of the mix, the overdubbing only highlights weaknesses that probably should have been buried, most notably his godawful falsetto on 'Jacked Up'. But the largest issue is that many of these tracks just feel undercooked and underdeveloped, songs that could have used a third verse to tell more of a story or at the very least provide some desperately needed context - this record runs just over a half hour, and it feels thin, even for a summer record.

And that, I think, ties into the main question: what does anyone expect from Weezer anymore? I can see fans loving this for noisy riffs and subject matter that on the surface seems to play in the same ballpark as the greats, and I'd argue that some fans probably have accepted a long time ago that you only care about Rivers Cuomo's lyrics on the hook. But as a Weezer fan who saw their significantly better 2014 album as a sign they were going into interesting directions... I'm sorry, this is a step back and a step down, especially when the melodic hooks aren't given the same punch or emphasis beyond the vocal line. For me, I'm thinking a strong 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan... but even then, Everything Will Be Alright In The End had more ambition, sharper hooks, and far better production. If I were you, I'd stick with that over this.

No comments:

Post a Comment