Nerds in Paradise

Weezer’s third veers away from the darkness of their last album in favor of pure pop pleasures

It was fitting that Weezer’s first album appeared in the summer of ’94, not long after Kurt Cobain’s death. The spark of the grunge phenomenon had been snuffed, and though new melodic trespasses were already appearing (Counting Crows, Hootie), everyone seemed ready to shake off the angst-ridden, moaning sounds of the few years previous.

From sunny California, Weezer embodied a newer, fresher musical outlook. Actual vocal harmonies bounded from their catchy, light songs; tasteful guitar leads highlighted tunes that cleverly referenced the X-Men, KISS, surfing, and Dungeons and Dragons; and their scruffy but clean-cut looks were welcome after all the flannel and long hair. Other smart melodic indie-pop appeared that same season—Sebadoh’s Bakesale, Liz Phair’s Whip-smart—but it was Weezer’s giant choruses that won the day. Pleasant and fizzy, this new breed of pop music could’ve been called “California sound”—the Bay Area’s Green Day was climbing up the charts too.

After Weezer’s video for “Buddy Holly” cracked MTV, a host of other catchy rock ’n’ roll bands—Superdrag, Nada Surf, the Fountains of Wayne—hit the airwaves. Only a couple years later, though, it seemed that the music’s day in the sun was already over. Weezer’s second album, the self-produced Pinkerton, failed commercially, and though Superdrag, Nada Surf, and the Fountains had all found modest success, none was able to keep the short-lived tide of popularity from rolling out.

Sometime after that, though, thousands of kids started discovering Pinkerton and realized that its unpolished, more personal sound was what they’d always wanted Weezer to sound like. The album was dirtier, both lyrically and musically, and arguably catchier too. Unlike the band’s Ric Ocasek-produced, eponymously titled debut (also known as The Blue Album), Pinkerton wasn’t souped up for radio and MTV hitdom. Weezer might’ve disappeared from public view, but the kids who found Pinkerton all started bands. It’s not a stretch to say that the fad of emo-rock—catchy, personal, often sappy, punk-influenced rock—pledges allegiance to Weezer’s Pinkerton. We hear traces of Weezer in the Promise Ring, the Get Up Kids (who recently opened for Weezer), Kleenex Girl Wonder, Braid (now Hey Mercedes!), and Barcelona.

But while all these newer bands were proliferating, things were looking grim for Weezer. Bassist Matt Sharp left to pursue his own project, The Rentals. Little was heard from Weezer until they recruited new bassist Mikey Welch, formerly of The Juliana Hatfield Three, and the group began playing sporadic live dates. The band returned to the studio last December, and the result is another self-titled collection (this one dubbed The Green Album). The disc starts off with “Don’t Let Go,” a song that sounds remarkably similar to Superdrag’s “Phaser.” Coincidence, or a nod to their rock-pop brothers-in-arms? Either way, it’s a rousing opener that chugs through its power chords. After this, Weezer are back on familiar ground: The second track, “Photograph,” is filled with background “ooh-ooh”s and “oh baby”s. It’s a chipper nod to California music of all stripes, from the Beach Boys to Weezer’s beloved Van Halen.

The production, once again by Ric Ocasek, isn’t as loose as on Pinkerton; the guitars are edgy but commercial-sounding. The album’s hardest track, “Hash Pipe,” is the first single. It’s an odd choice not only because MTV refuses to broadcast the words “hash pipe” together—the VJs refer to the song as “Half Pipe,” and the word “hash” is muted throughout the video—but also because it’s a little misleading to listeners expecting an album full of charging guitar riffs (which pop up only on a few tunes). Then again, this reflects the typical way that rock-pop bands approach releasing singles: Pick the song that sounds the least like the rest of the record.

Should The Green Album capture enough attention to merit further single releases, the choices will obviously be “Island in the Sun” and “Knock-down Drag-out.” (And I don’t say this just because the sticker on the record said so.) “Island” is an easygoing, acoustic-guitar-led tune; the sound is undeniably infectious and lighter than anything Weezer have previously released. It’s one of those songs where everything sounds familiar in a good way—not clichéd, but not unknown either. It’s the perfect summer tune, easy to sing and sway along to. “Knock-down Drag-out” rocks along faster than “Hash Pipe,” but more tunefully. The melodic hook is in the verse instead of the chorus, with the refrains in between serving only to build tension—a device that keeps the song pounding along steadily. At only two minutes long, though, it may prove too brief to grab radio’s attention.

If there’s a complaint to be lodged against The Green Album, it’s that it’s hardly meaty enough to satiate fans after Weezer’s five-year hiatus. As the follow-up to Pinkerton, it feels lightweight and insubstantial. Clocking in at 10 tracks and 28 minutes, it certainly isn’t enough to keep us going for another five years. But the record isn’t exactly a letdown either. It’s structured as a perfect pop album should be—brief, breezy, and catchy. As with all of Weezer’s records, it begs the listener to play armchair A&R guy: “What if this were the next single?”

Fans of Pinkerton might be disappointed, but they should cut the band some slack. The reasons Pinkerton has been so ravenously devoured—it’s complex, emotional, catchy without being lowbrow—are the reasons Weezer want to leave it behind. In the time surrounding Pinkerton’s release, the band members suffered the deaths of friends, clinical depression, major surgery, the departure of a founding member, and commercial failure. Call the new record a “sellout” if you want, but it’s easy to see why Weezer don’t want to revisit their darker, dirtier side.

Despite their five-year absence, Weezer have not returned with godhead, but simply a good pop record. It was the best they could do—which is a lot better than most bands can do. After all, over the course of three albums and a handful of B-sides, Weezer have compiled more perfect pop moments than any band could hope for.

This piece appeared in the Nashville Scene.