Listening to Weezer is sort of like staring down your own mediocrity. From the gritty sincerity of their early hits—too catchy to be “real” grunge, too grungy to be called pop—to the addictive, thoroughly commercialized nostalgia of 2014’s “Back to the Shack,” they’ve practically turned mass appeal into an original art, reading trends so well you might as well call them innovators. Weezer (The White Album) is no exception. From start to finish, the compilation oozes radio-ready alt-rock: it’s witty, it’s polished, it’s so sincere it feels ironic (or is it the opposite?), and it has just enough melodic jangle to compete with the folk-rock giants (Vance Joy, the Lumineers) who have been steadily strumming their way up Billboard’s charts in recent years.
The album opens with “California Kids,” a surf-rock-influenced tribute to the freewheeling glory of life on the West Coast. The breathlessly catchy tune is just lyrically weird enough to appeal to old Weezer fans, though its conventional hooks are primed for Top 40 airwaves. If the Cali theme is a bit clichéd in an age when Urban Outfitters sells California Republic shirts, well, it could always just be tongue-in-cheek. The following track, “Wind in Our Sail,” is, in my opinion, the only truly insufferable song on the album. Beginning as a kind of sappy-but-sweet tribute to teenage love, it quickly descends into a series of pseudo-intellectual similes (“We’ve got the wind in our sail/ Like Darwin on the Beagle/ Or Mendel experimenting with the pea”) that seem to be attempting to kindle some kind of nostalgia for high school science that I just can’t muster. Sure, Weezer has always branded themselves as a “nerdy” rock band; vocalist Rivers Cuomo went to Harvard, I get it. But the intro-to-bio references feel forced rather than endearingly confessional.
“Thank God for Girls” suffers a similar authenticity problem, though in the opposite direction. It’s as though, after recording two radio-ready pop-rock tracks, the band sat down and desperately tried to produce something weird. The result is a halfhearted Fratellis-esque rock ‘n’ roll song that tries to subvert gender roles and ends up sounding mildly sexist in the process. Thankfully, this track, like the song before it, hardly characterizes the rest of the album. The next song, “Girl We Got a Good Thing,” is everything its antecedent isn’t. Cutesy, catchy, and melodic, it’s the kind of sunny, Beach Boys-style anthem to budding romance that makes you think of bicycles and ice cream cones and kisses on the nose.
The rest of the album lives somewhere in inoffensive, hook-filled mediocrity, as Cuomo reminisces on failed love, love and drugs, Southern California, and more failed love. The one standout track is “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori,” which manages to be remarkably compelling without seeming to be about anything. The last two tracks—“Jacked Up” and “Endless Bummer”—feature an impressive falsetto from Cuomo, if he seems a bit too old to be experiencing Simple-Plan-level angst.
Altogether, this record makes for a satisfying new release from a band that has built their career around simultaneously mocking and milking the attention of commercial radio. Having traded their 90s-style distortion and macho guitar riffs for piano and sad-boy vulnerability, they’re certainly stepping in a new direction. But the fact that The White Album marks a departure from Weezer’s earlier work has more to do with the evolution of mainstream alt-rock than any artistic pretensions on the part of this shrewd group.
The White Album marks Weezer’s first self titled album in 8 years, and the band’s fifth studio release in that time. Since their debut as the consummate post-grunge lovable losers, Weezer has been producing earnestly endearing tunes like “El Scorcho” and “No One Else.” Watching Weezer’s musical progression has had a trajectory similar to my academic career; both peaked years ago, and have continued on with varying degrees of unexceptional output. As the years have worn on, Weezer has lost its boyish charm that won the hearts of so many fans. At best, their songs have lost the sincerity of their earlier years. At worst, they’ve crafted shamelessly commercial alt-rock that plays on the changing whims of popular music (see Raditude‘s empty, anthemic track “The Girl Got Hot”, the cringeworthy “I Can’t Stop Partying”, and the summery nostalgia of “Back to the Shack”). The White Album feels like the band’s first real step towards progress. The classic mixture of weird and endearing that allowed the group to garner critical acclaim is back in rare form. The album is a concept album — the sun-kissed sounds of California echo throughout the record, opening the album with squawking seagulls and crashing waves on “California Kids”.
“California Kids” is followed up by “Wind in Our Sails,” a track characterized by Rivers Cuomo’s overzealous wailing and various out of place hyper- (pseudo-?) intellectual literary and scientific references (see the allusion to “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Sisyphus.) The chorus is cringe-inducing, throwing in unnecessary references to Mendel and Darwin. Cuomo’s Harvard education is well-known, but for some reason the songwriter feels the need to distractingly flaunt it here. “Thank God For Girls,” is absolutely insufferable. It’s an amalgamation of everything Weezer has recently been doing wrong. There’s a crippling lack of authenticity, and an entirely unsubtle strangeness that feels forced. It’s a song with great aspirations, attempting to explore gender roles and stereotypes in modern dating. Unfortunately, its esoteric references and strained attempts at the strange distract from any real commentary being made. In the Genius.com annotations for the song, Rivers remarks on how the title/chorus shaped the song, stating that “[Thank God For Girls] Seemed like a big, mainstream-ish title but I knew I would be able to pull all kinds of weirdness out of it.” This effort to produce the strange is felt in full force throughout the single. Between phallic cannoli imagery and references to the biblical creation of woman, the whole is lost for the parts.
Thankfully, “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” is a turning point for the album. Here a much needed sincerity is returned to the record. The song features a Brian Wilson-esque intro and chorus, and doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is: a sappy love song about the wonder and fear of new love. The lyrics are strange without being off kilter, and the honesty is cute without being kitschy. It’s a song that evokes the breezy romances of summer, puts butterflies in your stomach like good love. The second half of the album is unquestionably the stronger half. From the chunky, power chord driven ballad to junkie love “Do You Wanna Get High?” to an amazing key change in “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori,” (a hazy narrative about what very well could be a youthful summer camp threesome), the album features an array of solid tracks the likes of which haven’t been seen on a Weezer record in years. At times the band even channels Ben Folds, using delicate piano on “Jacked Up” to complement Cuomo’s falsetto.
The White Album is easily the best record the band has released in nearly a decade. The grungy, angst-ridden Weezer of old has long since faded away. The production has been cleaned up, and the band members have all grown two decades older since their original release. For better or for worse, the band has produced a solid alt-rock record, sure to get popular radio play. If you’re looking for classic Weezer, you’ll not find it here, and you’ll likely be hard pressed to find it again.