Weezer (The Black Album) Pitchfork record review
|Weezer (The Black Album)|
|Studio album by Weezer|
|Released||March 1, 2019|
Weezer (The Black Album)
In 1998, two years after Pinkerton debuted to poor reviews, Rivers Cuomo retreated to a one-room bedsit beneath a Los Angeles freeway. He painted the walls and ceilings black, and on the windows, he layered black bed-sheets over thick fiberglass insulation. Devastated by the negative response to Pinkerton, and frustrated by an unproductive spate of rehearsals, he withdrew from his band, and then from the world. For months on end, he hid in his unlit bedroom, depressed, never going outside, never speaking to another human being. “I’d start to have some of the darkest thoughts and fears and feelings,” he said. “I’d think, ‘Man, maybe I’m never going to get out of this.’”
Similar stories abound of songwriters so adept at articulating sadness they became suffused in the feeling. These stories don’t often end happily. But Cuomo is a marvelous anomaly: he emerged from his depression, sought help via psychotherapy and meditation, and reunited with his band to create, over several decades, an immense body of work. The only small wrinkle in this narrative is that body of work is famously reviled among fans and critics alike. On this latest album, Weezer reflects on their own capricious history, using a blunt force the likes of which they’ve never deployed before.
Actually, “blunt” might be an understatement: Cuomo chants, “Die, die, you zombie bastards” a dozen times. It’s a forceful rebuke of Leslie Jones and her ilk. When, on the same track, he sings, “Music saved my life,” the platitude lays plain an ugly truth: Weezer’s masterpiece was produced during a period of painful dysregulation and remains mired in racist bigotry. Fans who clamor for a second Pinkerton are propping up an emotionally stunted corpse; Mitski is shoveling loam onto his grave. Throughout Weezer (The Black Album), Cuomo pleads with listeners to follow him past Pinkerton, and out of that dark apartment. “I lived my life,” he sings, “and that’s much better than hiding in a hole.”
Weezer’s foremost lyrical priority, then, is to shuck the expectations of their perennially disappointed fanbase. The band attacks this project from every angle: cynical sneering at the pressures of commercialization (“Can’t Knock the Hustle”), wistful longing for artistry without an audience (“High as a Kite”), and the aforementioned open death threats of “Zombie Bastards.” The production, too, rarely bears even a passing resemblance to the power pop that first endeared Weezer to listeners. They’ve enlisted TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek to draft a set of soundscapes that range from bossa nova to Blink-182. In an era where recommendation engines swaddle listeners in cozy familiarity, it’s refreshing to see so much stylistic variation from track to track.
But this striving for the new and different comes at a cost. There’s no emotional throughline on The Black Album, no grand statement that continues from one track to the next. The songs never blur together, but they also don’t tell a story as the sum of their parts. A sense of tonal whiplash ensues, and the album’s highlights are best enjoyed in isolation. “Byzantine” goes down like a bubbly flute of champagne, a sweet, slinky narrative of infidelity spilling out over a laissez-faire lounge beat. On “The Prince Who Wanted Everything,” co-written with rhythm guitarist Brian Bell, Cuomo sings knotty lines like “all the courtiers will genuflect,” clearly relishing each and every syllable that clicks between his teeth. And “I’m Just Being Honest,” a genuinely hysterical ode on the pitfalls of constructive criticism, lands like Weezer doing a spot-on Lonely Island parody of themselves: “I listened to it, but halfway through it, I had to quit; your band sounds like shit.”
Elsewhere, The Black Album stumbles when Cuomo opts for universality over specificity. “Living in L.A.” smothers its interesting ideas under broad brush strokes. “Piece of Cake” is a shallow, plodding re-tread of the White Album stand-out “Do You Wanna Get High?” The album’s final track, “California Snow,” borders on disastrous: over skittering, “Sicko Mode”-esque drums, Cuomo spits, “This is the definition of flow! Nobody cold as this!” and then he sings about cocaine for three and a half minutes. Cuomo’s songwriting on substance abuse, once so direct and delicate, sinks to maudlin depths here; the invocation of Judas in this song’s bridge can’t match the bruising betrayal conveyed in, “You cleaned up/Found Jesus.”
In recent months, Weezer’s been focused on light-hearted, crowd-pleasing viral videos: Finn Wolfhard donning a wild glam-rock mullet to play a teenage Cuomo, Weird Al suiting up in bowl cut, cardigan, and Buddy Holly glasses. At first blush, the band’s new video for “High as a Kite” appears to be more of the same, with Cuomo wearing a red sweater and greeting a crowd of pre-schoolers for a taping of “Mister Rivers’ Neighborhood.” But as the band’s performance gathers steam, the dark subtext beneath the song’s optimism reveals itself. Smiles slough off the toddlers’ faces, giving way to wobbly pouting. Their parents knit their eyebrows, weary, visibly distressed by the rock’n’roll carnage unfolding. The final shot all but defines the current moment of Weezer: The audience has cleared out entirely, leaving a vast expanse of empty black seats and bare black walls. On the soundstage, Weezer stands triumphant in the wreckage, soaked in light.
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