Weezer (The Blue Album) Pitchfork Media record review
|Studio album by Weezer|
|Released||May 10, 1994|
|Weezer (The Blue Album)
Reviewer: Jillian Mapes (Pitchfork Media)
Publishing date: February 26, 2017
Weezer mastermind Rivers Cuomo was such a somber kid that his second-grade teacher trained the other students to tell him, in unison, “Let me see the smile.” Childhood in Yogaville, the ashram and Integral Yoga HQ led by “Woodstock guru” Swami Satchidananda in eastern Connecticut, was isolating, devoid of much pop culture and adventure—until Cuomo heard Kiss. When a family friend brought their fifth album, 1976’s Rock and Roll Over, to the Cuomo house, it sent Rivers and younger brother Leaves launching off furniture in a way only formative music can. “I’ve pretty much based my life around that record,” he has said. With their comic-book personas and distorted riffs, Kiss cracked Cuomo’s young brain wide open and rewired it for good. He had little idea what debauchery they were singing of, but from that point on, Cuomo began having intense dreams about becoming a rock star, and he began obsessively studying the work of his songwriting heroes.
For Rivers, music offered both a coat of armor and an identity. As a pre-teen enrolled in public school for the first time, Cuomo went by a different first name and his stepfather’s last name (Kitts); his chosen moniker—Peter Kitts—was awfully close to that of Kiss drummer Peter Criss. And while Cuomo was still picked on as he made his way through puberty, he eventually found his people: the metalheads. In 1989, Cuomo moved from Connecticut with his high school band to Los Angeles, ground zero for the AquaNetted and Spandexed. There, he found himself in the midst of shifting tastes, both culturally and personally. He started working at the Sunset Boulevard Tower Records, where he was schooled on quintessentially “cool” music like the Velvet Underground, Pixies, and Sonic Youth.
Also in the mix at this time was a new band called Nirvana. When Cuomo first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio in late 1991 while washing dishes in an Italian restaurant, he was sorta pissed he didn’t write it himself. “Rivers says, ‘I should have written that,’” remembered early Weezer guitarist Jason Cropper in John D. Luerssen’s band biography, River’s Edge. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah. That’s totally true.’ Because the music he was writing was improving in quality every day.” Cuomo’s interest in Nirvana became an obsession. He’d taken notes from Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Scorpions, Yngwie Malmsteen, and, of course, Kiss. But for all his knowledge of rock history, he still cared deeply about writing anthems that spoke to his generation, even if he had trouble looking his peers in the eyes.
Weezer anthems were destined to be different. In 1994, the acts dominating the modern rock charts were pushing against something, from the British aesthetes (Depeche Mode, New Order, Morrissey) to the singular weirdos (Beck, Tori Amos, Red Hot Chili Peppers) to the disenfranchised youth (Nirvana, Green Day, Pearl Jam). With rebellion came a facade of cool, and that was something Weezer could never manage, at least not in the traditional way. Cuomo always tried a little too hard. He would become the fidgety anti-frontman with a thousand “revenge of the nerds” taglines and a Harvard degree to prove it. That dichotomy—the big-time rockstar in khakis and Buddy Holly glasses, who never seems totally comfortable in his own skin—is what launched his cult and anchored his unlikely sex appeal. And his band—drummer Patrick Wilson, bassist Matt Sharp, and guitarist Brian Bell—played along, accentuating their innate geekiness to make Weezer feel like a unified front.
By the summer of 1993, Cuomo had written a number of songs strong enough to convince the alt-rock major DGC to sign Weezer (this despite a lack of buzz around the L.A. scene) and have the Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek produce their first album. When the group’s self-titled debut—typically known as The Blue Album—arrived in May 1994, Cobain had been dead for a month. A feeling of dread hung over the alternative rock world whose prominence was ushered in by the Seattle sound. With their wired energy, effortless power-pop-punk hooks, and Beach Boys harmonies, Weezer took the alt-rock explosion in a new direction. You couldn’t quite tell if Cuomo was mocking his song’s regressive narrators or sympathizing with them. But once you got past his defense mechanisms and sorting through the humor and cultural references, you found a portrait of a young man’s psyche, riddled with angst and insecurity. And it arrived on the wings of massive riffs and gnarled guitar solos that sounded like they were emanating from a Flying V—on every single song.
The Blue Album’s exploration of the fragile male ego is in full swing by the record’s second track, “No One Else.” Taken at face value, this is likely the most misogynistic song Weezer has ever released. “I want a girl who will laugh for no one else,” Cuomo sings while the band rushes through the fuzzy pop-punk changes, evoking the hyperbole of masculinity. But there’s more beneath the surface. “‘No One Else’ is about the jealous-obsessive asshole in me freaking out on my girlfriend," Cuomo has said. The song acquires even more resonance in the context of its sequencing on the record. Cuomo described the following song, “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,” as “the same asshole wondering why she's gone.” In actuality, he spends most of “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” muttering to his ex’s wallet photograph and masturbating to her memory, getting in a joke along the way, saying she enjoyed the sex “more than ever.” It’s an absurd scene, but imagine the sentiment coming from the wrong person and it’s suddenly not so funny. Weezer were masterful at walking this line between knowing jokiness and legitimately creepy dysfunction.
This base kind of arrested development shifts back and forth between the narrator’s relationship with girls and his views on himself. If “No One Else” and “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” are mirror twins, so are “Surf Wax America” and “In the Garage.” Given that Weezer were named after a common term for asthma sufferers, no one expected them to be out on a board riding the waves. That tension animates “Surf Wax America,” a well-crafted jumble of harmonic puzzles and barreling punk guitars where the hedonistic surfer lifestyle is both celebrated and chided for its simplistic worldview. Even while the song sneers, the ferocity of Cuomo screaming “Let’s go!” juxtaposed with the solemnness of the band’s Wilsonian harmonies make you believe, once again, in Weezer’s sincerity. Meanwhile, “In the Garage” is an homage to that happy place where no one judges you for your comic books, D&D figurines, and Kiss posters. It seems like over-the-top self-parody, but the garage was indeed a real place where early Weezer practiced and recorded when Cuomo, Sharp, and original guitarist Justin Fisher lived together in the “Amherst House” near Santa Monica. The hopeless ambition of “In the Garage” would make it the defining song of nerd-rock.
In between “Surf Wax America,” a fantasy about someone completely different, and “In the Garage,” a hyper-detailed song about himself, lies a song about his father. There are two more nakedly emotional songs on Blue, which are set off further by Cuomo’s rare embrace of laid-back guitars. Atop a bluesy jangle, “Say It Ain’t So” details the moment when Cuomo’s deepest worries are realized: He sees a beer in the fridge and, remembering how his father drank before he walked out, he senses his stepfather is doing the same. He fears now that he, too, is destined for this fate. Pinkerton, Weezer’s sophomore album, is often described as the tortured confessional to end all tortured confessionals, essentially a diary of Cuomo’s notorious Asian fetish. But “Say It Ain’t So” is just as raw, and arguably has more that its listeners can use, throwing its arms wide open to anyone who’s known the trauma of dad issues. The music is constructed perfectly, building and building until what's left of Cuomo's vulnerability comes out as a bitterly frayed "yeah-yeah," all capped by a guitar solo worthy of the Scorpions.
The desire to write a perfect song can drive some songwriters mad, as their belief in music as a vehicle for emotional expression reconciles itself with the belief that pop is a puzzle that can be solved. On Blue, Cuomo found the ideal balance, as he rarely has since. He understood the rules so well that he also knew when to break them, from Sharp’s super silly new-wave keyboard in “Buddy Holly” to the mumbled dialogue that runs through “Undone” (the band and their friends chatting were a backup plan after DGC refused to clear dialog from an old sci-fi film, “Peanuts”) and more.
The fact that “Only in Dreams” is eight glorious minutes long is Blue’s greatest example of self-indulgence gone right. It confronts the two most perilous teen-boy anxieties—talking to a girl you really like and dancing in public. It’s fiery, gorgeous, well-played, and devastatingly sad. Sharp’s trudging bassline guides the way forward for the narrator, whose fear of stepping on his crush’s toenails is temporarily silenced by the band’s total calamity. Rock’n’roll teaches us that extreme volume can quiet the voices of doubt inside our heads and numb the pain of living inside our awkward bodies. In this sense, the climaxes on “Only in Dreams,” starting around the song’s midpoint, are rock’n’roll lessons of a lifetime. But it’s the big build at the 6:45 mark that plays like a beta male transfiguration. Having re-recorded Cropper’s guitar parts in one take after essentially firing him following Blue’s 1993 recording at Electric Lady, Cuomo ends up axe-battling himself until he’s soloing like the metal gods he grew up worshipping. Wilson’s drumming—an underrated and idiosyncratic force throughout Weezer’s discography—drives home the catharsis. His cymbals crash from every angle and his tricky rolls play like percussive triple axels. By the end of the song, you’re back to reality, exhausted but ready for a fight—even if it’s just against your own doubting voices.
For all the talk about Rivers Cuomo’s anemic masculinity, The Blue Album has a unifying thread of identity that supersedes gender. An essay on the Smiths pointed out that, “Asking people about their interest in the Smiths is another way of asking this question: ‘How did you survive your teenage years?’” The same could be said of Weezer’s debut. Blue quivers with isolation if you look past the pastiche, the deflective humor, and the guitar lines that make you sit up tall. The emotion Weezer tapped into is echoed in music sometimes considered distinctly millennial due to its high levels of anxiety, from Death Cab for Cutie and Car Seat Headrest to Mitski’s Puberty 2 and even Drake at his most neurotic.
For as classic as the album is considered now, Blue didn’t make the 1994 Pazz & Jop year-end critics’ poll. Back then, Weezer were considered alt opportunists or even Pavement ripoffs—a comparison that seems silly now, looking at the distinct rock strains since indebted to Cuomo. But MTV and radio airplay for “Buddy Holly” and “Undone — The Sweater Song” made Weezer huge, and The Blue Album went double-platinum within 15 months of its release. Over the next three years, as Weezer 1.0 slowly imploded (bye-bye Matt Sharp, hello rotating door of bassists), the record would sell a million more and be well on its way to canonization. By 2003, Pitchfork named it one of the best records of the 1990s; two years later, Rolling Stone heralded it as the 299th greatest album ever. And so Blue now sits in a sweet spot of commercial accessibility and critical adoration, a combination that guarantees the album will make its way into the hands of a certain kind of bespectacled teenager for decades to come—the ones who really need it. Cuomo never wrote a song as indelible as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but he did reach generations of rock kids, proving that coolness is optional if you study hard enough.
— Jillian Maples