The Red Album in Context (Or: The Greatest Weezer Album Ever?)

Posted by Janet | June 24, 2008

Upon the release of “Pork and Beans,” the first single from Weezer’s self-titled sixth album, a columnist at indie music site cokemachineglow posted an essay-length response to the song, interpreting, reflecting, prognosticating, and generally giving it the kind of thorough analysis one would generally reserve for, say, a Bob Dylan or Neil Young song—not a three-minute pop song with a title like, well, “Pork and Beans.” But such is the strange, thusfar unexplained reaction Weezer has always provoked; they bring out the inner geek in all of us, and the strange unfolding of their career has become a rock and roll saga of mythic proportions that, frankly, has usually seemed unsupported by the relative simplicity of their music.

Or at least that’s how things seemed until the sixth record (or The Red Album, as fans began calling it as soon as the monochromatic cover art was unveiled). Without saying anything about the music itself just yet, it’s a bit baffling to note that, for the first time, a Weezer album actually deserves the lengthy process of contextualization that their music has always been subjected to. In fact, this album sounds so much like a culmination of everything they’ve done up to this point that it actually casts such maligned albums as Maladroit and Make Believe in a new light, and brings the entire Weezer narrative into sharp focus.

In other words, it’s an album that deserves—demands, really—to be appreciated within the larger context of the Weezer canon. It is, after all, an album that at first blush comes down squarely within the Blue Album camp of goofy, geeky pop dressed up in crunching metal riffs as opposed to the raw, edgy sound of Pinkerton, which was essentially a singer-songwriter album adorned with the tropes of screeching, scraping guitar rock, with singer Rivers Cuomo baring some of his most intimate and embarrassing feelings. And this, of course, might lead fans to believe that Red is, by default, another entry in the list of post-Pinkerton retreats—an album that, like Green, Maladroit, and Make Believe, finds Cuomo doing everything he can to avoid revealing anything personal or intimate, hiding his feelings and his personality behind immaculate, workmanlike pop songs that emphasize craft over expression or discovery.

But that wouldn’t be quite right. Red isn’t the continuation of the post-Pinkerton trend so much as a fulfillment of it—the album in which—finally!—patient fans get a sense of what Rivers has been up to for the last few years. We got the first hint of it with Alone, the collection of solo demos he released last year; though not a particularly enjoyable collection, it did offer a compelling portrait of a relentless craftsman patiently learning the ins and outs of pop songwriting, honing his skills and figuring out how to manipulate the form itself. And now, with Red, we get the sense that he was up to that very same thing on The Green Album and the two that came after it—cultivating his craft and mastering the form.

And that learning process has yielded The Red Album, a dynamite collection of songs that finds Cuomo implementing all the tricks he’s learned over the last few albums. His mastery of craft is on full display, yes, but this time he’s not just toying with the tropes and trappings of pop music—he’s putting that craft into the service of his art, for The Red Album is, in its own way, as autobiographical as anything he’s ever done—including Pinkerton— but, because it’s wrapped up in pop hooks, slick production, humor and heart, it’s never as strikingly raw and intimate as that album was. It’s the best of both worlds, really—as catchy and compulsively playable as Blue or Green, as personal and quirky as Pinkerton, funnier and cleverer and more ambitious than anything Weezer’s ever done.

And rest assured, it is ambitious. Sure, it never strays too far from the tried and true Weezer blueprint, but it finds the band playing with more confidence and looseness than they have in… well, ever. This isn’t the studied, timid Weezer of Maladroit, too cautious to ever throw a wrench into their formula; this is a Weezer that’s playful enough to write a six-minute, multi-part epic called “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived”—like “Bohemian Rhapsody” for a new generation, cycling through basically the entire history of pop music before all is said and done. This is a Weezer who can write and record an acoustic ballad that’s darker and more ominous than even the angriest tracks on Pinkerton (“Cold Dark World”). This is a Weezer that can shuffle their entire line-up for whole songs, bringing guitarist Brian Bell to sing lead vocals and send Rivers back to the drum kit on “Thought I Knew” (bassist Scott Shriner and drummer Patrick Wilson each get a turn at lead vocals, too). This is a Weezer that can turn in their warmest, most disarming and affecting song ever (“Heart Songs”), name-check Timbaland, and crack goofy musical jokes (“How’s this for arts and crafts?” quips Rivers before launching into a ridiculous, effects-laden solo on opener “Troublemaker”). It’s even a Weezet that covers Talk Talk and The Band as bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the album. And all the while, it’s a Weezer that’s playing and writing more tightly than ever before, offering their hookiest and most memorable songs yet.

And it’s also a Weezer with a frontman who, for the first time since Pinkerton, is willing to let us into his heart and his head—albeit on his own terms. Make no mistake—this isn’t a confessional album like Pinkerton, and it is, if anything, goofier and geekier than anything the band’s yet done. The indie hipsters will hate it. For the rest of us, it’s red gold. If Pinkerton was Cuomo’s sexual autobiography, this is his musical one, a celebration of everything that’s great about being in a rock band. “Troublemaker” chronicles his misfit adolescence and his early attraction to making music. “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of rock and roll ego. “Pork and Beans” turns a frustrating meeting with record label execs into one of the band’s funniest, most memorable singles. “Heart Songs” is a soulful little acoustic number, an homage to all the bands who shaped Cuomo’s own passion for music that culminates in as touching a tribute to Kurt Cobain as has ever been recorded. After that, the songs become less obviously personal, but, because they deal overtly with the tropes of pop songwriting, they come across in this context not as further exercises in craft, but as affectionate nods to the musical traditions in which Weezer now firmly entrenches itself.

And that’s what ultimately makes this not just the best Weezer album since Pinkerton, but the one that seems most likely to befuddle and beguile the indie hipster set. This is an album that’s as carefully-crafted as The Green Album or Maladroit, but more unabashedly, unselfconsciously emotional as anything they’ve ever done. It’s big on craft, yes, but also on heart. It’s the first time in a long time that Cuomo has tempered his cleverness with sincerity, and so, while it seems like there will never again be a Weezer album as strangely moving as Pinkerton— even here, Cuomo still sounds like he’s doggedly avoiding anything that borders on the confessional—The Red Album is far and away the most creative and compelling Weezer album since that seminal sophomore set, and it’s arguably the most flat-out enjoyable, surprising, and relentlessly playable record of their career.

Josh Hurst, The Hurst Review

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