“Raw… constructed perfectly.” “One of the greatest songs of the decade.” These are words that critics have used to describe “Say It Ain’t So,” the third single from Weezer’s 1994 debut album. The song is a deep dive into the bubbling familial conflict that comes with addiction, based upon troubles lead singer Rivers Cuomo experienced with his father and stepfather. Eventually, Rolling Stone would rank it one of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”; Pitchfork would include it in its “Top 200 Tracks of the 90s.”
What happened after the song, and its album-mates “Buddy Holly” and “Undone”, blew up on rock radio? Fans and critics alike will know the story: Weezer released Pinkerton, a confessional piece that saw Cuomo dealing with his inner demons. Much to his chagrin, the album summoned some new demons in the form of detractors. Cuomo himself soon turned his back on it, calling it “A hideous record”; when he released The Green Album, he assured the world that it had “No feeling, no emotion.” Sure enough, the singles that followed this shift were about looking outward instead of inward. “Island in the Sun” was a cheery summer anthem that was covered by The Olsen Twins and Emma Roberts for teen movies; “Beverly Hills” provided goofy commentary on celebrity culture; the band’s wildly popular cover of “Africa” by Toto was a wildly popular cover of “Africa” by Toto.
Considering all of this, Weezer’s most recent albums have felt kind of like attempts for the band to redeem itself. The Black Album is no exception. It doesn’t revolutionize the Weezer discography, but it has its moments of intrigue.
On the first track of the album, Weezer makes its self-awareness clear. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is a catchy defense against haters; criticize it and you’ll fall right into the band’s trap. Twangy guitar strumming and Mexican-sounding horns reel you in; then Cuomo sings, “Hasta luego, adios” to everyone and anyone would try to take him down. “You can write a blog about it”; “Leave a five star review and I’ll leave you one, too,” he sings, already winning the battle by having fun. He winks at the listener by subverting lyrical expectations: “The future’s so bright, I gotta poke my eyes out”; “Higher education is the key to escape, but I never learned to roll a joint.” The band’s casual use of the b-word comes across as juvenile, but overall, the track’s fun and funky—you can picture a band of misfits blasting it in the car in a road trip film, off to their next adventure.
Next up is the equally entertaining single “Zombie Bastards.” The wacky title makes you expect some kind of high-speed action anthem, maybe in the vein of The Aquabats—but the song’s a ballad that morphs into a cheery electropop romp. The contrast is what makes the track shine. “Die, die, you zombie bastards” over lighthearted guitar strumming? Unprecedented. The line “That’s right/Music saved my life” is undeniably cheesy, but the whole zombie thing cancels that out.
Up to this point, the album has consisted of songs that you could skip around to. The middle of the album, unfortunately, has one too many songs you can skip. “Too Many Thoughts In My Head” is groovy, with traces of MGMT’s poppy psychedelia; “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” has a sunny Rooney vibe. Yet while pleasant, more or less, they’re not standouts. Sure, “High As A Kite” is nice and happy—but if that’s what you’re looking for, why not go back to “Island in the Sun”?
Strange, then, that the last track on the album is as fascinating as “California Snow.” The song was played over the credits of recent film SPELL, and here, too, it functions as an apt conclusion, offering a good old-fashioned dose of melancholy as a remedy for the more saccharine moments that preceded it. It’s not free of awkwardness; the beginning, in which Cuomo talk-sings, “This is the definition of flow/Nobody cold as this,” is particularly clunky. Is Cuomo trying to drop a Lupe Fiasco–esque rap ballad? Surely he’s attempting irony—but the band’s image is so founded in nerdiness (albeit sometimes cool nerdiness) that the boast is a little hard to swallow, no matter how it was intended. The “woos” in the background don’t help, either. Then the chorus hits, and there’s a definite volta. “California snow,” Cuomo sings, backed by his own yearning harmonies. “Never let me go.” You start to take him seriously—not because he’s using a cocaine metaphor, but because of the feuding conviction and resignation in his vocals. The first verse is a little rough (“solve a thorny problem” is especially strange phrasing), but the interplay between the keys and the bass is so thematic that it carries you through. The bridge is the song’s finest moment—in fact, it might be one of Weezer’s at large. First, Cuomo alludes to The Godfather (“Never go against the family”). Then he employs a biblical metaphor to communicate his defeat, voice cracking: “Come on, Judas, give me a kiss/I can’t take no more of this.” Suddenly the “woos” sound haunting instead of contrived. A killer guitar melody appears in the home stretch; then fade to black. That’s The Black Album.
Can you break up with Weezer after a final text like that? It’s hard to. The record grows banal in places, and never quite reaches the heights we all know Weezer is capable of. But just as you “can’t knock the hustle,” you can’t totally muffle talent, and Cuomo can undoubtedly be a clever, creative songwriter when he wants to be. “Zombie Bastards” probably won’t make any Rolling Stone lists—but surely, the band will still be a blast to see in concert.