Monday, May 05, 2008

5/4/08 – Weezer Broke My Heart

Weezer was the first band I really, truly loved, in that way peculiar to teenager-hood, when a band really can seem to speak as some sort of totemic signifier of everything that you feel and feel that you are about. As the strains of their new single leak out, and hope renews that maybe, just maybe, they’ve got their shit together this time, my mind again turns to the matter of how painful it is when a band breaks your heart.

A history of my discovery – back in the day of 30 second .wav file samplers, I played the one for “Buddy Holly” on loop. I loved the song. I wanted to own it. But, concerned that it would be the typical nugget-of-gold-on-a-mound-of-trash so typical of so many full albums (I’m looking at you, Better Than Ezra) that flooded music stores in the wake of the Nirvana explosion, I actually bought the single, not the album.

This led to a couple of discoveries – 1) I had made a mistake. I loved the crappily recorded live versions of “Surf Wax America” and “My Name Is Jonas” just as much as I loved the main event, and now I knew I had to own the album. 2) I experienced that perverse pleasure of music loving, the discovery of the obscure b-side, for the first time. “Jamie”, the b-side for that single, remains to this day my favorite Weezer song. It’s basically what I imagined the Jesus & Mary Chain sounded like from reading the reviews of Psychocandy – a pretty ‘50s singalong melody about a girl that sounds like it’s being played inside a tornado. I learned later that the song was recorded as part of someone’s graduate school project in sound engineering (details fuzzy), and it sounds like it. The guitars sound like a thousand amplified basses, all being played through a fuzz pedal. It’s glorious, and remains so.

I snapped up the S/T album and devoured it. Obviously, it’s great. It was then, and it remains so. The chief accomplishments of the album are sonic and lyric: sonically, it balances perfectly on the delicate fulcrum between sugar-sweet pop melodies (and delivery – Rivers Cuomo is a talented singer, a crucial component of the band’s appeal), and sledgehammer guitar fury – both the roaring 4/4 drive of the twin-guitar rhythm section and the Winger-meets-the-Pixies guitar solos. Lyrically, Rivers works a masterful variation on one of the definitive rock variations – the scorned geek. Backing those gorgeous melodies and venomous crunch is a boy/man that’s been rejected by the ladies, one that looks like Buddy Holly, one that plays a mean game of D&D, one that is holed up his garage trying to put a band together so he can tell the world just how thoroughly it’s done him wrong.

The persona is not original – Gordan Gano worked it to perfection on the Violent Femmes’ debut album, just to cite one example. But the engaging part of the Cuomo persona-in-song is that He Is Us – that is, like Elvis Costello was once purported to be, the workings of his mind seemed to mirror mine exactly. I could never relate to a Kurt Cobain; swirling down a drain of heroin and inchoate rage at modern existence. Rivers’s grievances were mine, blown up to Technicolor proportions.

Like a lot of people that liked the debut, Pinkerton left me cold at first. Both the sound and the lyrical persona are sharpened – Cuomo digs deeper into the lover-scorned persona, peppering in ever more personal details and letting some of the humor from the debut curdle into true alienation/bitterness. Sonically, the bright sheen is no longer present – the guitars hit hard and flat, feedback squalls are everywhere, and the drums sound reverb-less; the whole album has a lot of the sonic qualities of Surfer Rosa, but with a whole lot more bass on the guitars and a lot less of the Santiago surf-whine.

As a relistened, the album grew on me for these reasons – it’s a more adult album, and a messier one, and I’d put it in the top 5 of the nineties on my own personal list. It didn’t sell worth a damn, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not cute, like the debut. It’s not really that funny, either (well, except for maybe “Pink Triangle”). The lyrical specificities make listening to it feel oddly voyeuristic; intimate in a frightening way. Watching the overanalytical superego of a nerd crushed by romantic failure bash away at the self-imposed cage with gravelly, feedback-laden storms does not immediate radio hits make.

Then, a long hiatus. Weezer was broken up, or took a break, it was hard to tell in the pre-blog saturation Dark Ages. I sought out all the b-sides I could, and discovered even more greatness. I was amazed – here was a band that had never put out a song I disliked. After 6 years, I was in college, and the rumors stirred – they were coming back. Sure, Matt Sharp was long gone, having pursued his own muse with The Rentals, but surely the bass could be replaced. This was Rivers Cuomo’s show.

And, then, the horror. The third album. Lyrics, once sharp, insightful, personal; now dull, generic, unmemorable. The sound – no guitar solos. No longer tuned down half-a-step for that gravel crunch. The songs, that most crucial of components, the songs were just terrible. Actual bad songs. Trash. Songs I would never in a million years want to hear more than once. One line, just to pluck from many: “Open your heart and let the good stuff out”. What? What the hell? Who was this Stepford Wives version of my favorite band? I had no idea that Matt Sharp was so important to the quality of Weezer’s songs, but maybe I should have been after hearing the highs of some of his Rentals material. I felt genuinely betrayed. A band that I had wanted to return I now wished had gone on permanent hiatus.

It makes me appreciate all those diehard Rolling Stones fans, the ones who must have realized at some point in the ‘80s that their heroes had peaked.a while ago, and that while Exile In Main Street will endure, the current iteration of the band is mostly going to crank out forgettable crap. The titans of the ‘60s and ‘70s already had their peaks and declines frozen into a coherent discography/narrative – Weezer was the first band in which I experienced that rollercoaster personally, viscerally, for myself. Having read about the Replacements sad decline, and the Clash, and Zeppelin, and all the rest, here was the painful lived experience.

And now they’re back, with another new single, and this one comes the closest in a long while to recapturing the feel of the original. The old hope comes flooding back, and the phantom nature of it just makes it more agonizing. Is that the old guitar churn? Those oddly personal and clunky lyric touches? Matt Sharp’s still M.I.A., but is it possible Rivers is paying attention again? I know it’s not, and I know the letdown is coming, and for that reason it would be best for my musical piece of mind if they would either become great again, or just give it up. The Stones loom like a grinning specter, and still I’ll get my hands on the new album as soon as I possibly can.

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