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Review: Weezer Make Weezer Great Again on ‘The White Album’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 01, 2016
Label: Crush Music / Atlantic

Well, it only took ’em 20 years. The half-decade hiatus that Weezer started in 1996 after their epochal first two albums — and the sonically streamlined, emotionally neutralized third album they eventually returned with in 2001 — gave fans a case of Blue balls for which the band has never truly provided relief. For two decades, Rivers Cuomo & Co. have teased the long-awaited “return to form” album but never quite delivered on it — not even on 2014’s better-received Everything Will Be Alright in the End, whose lead single explicitly stated the band’s obnoxious intentions to bring back the mid-’90s. For better or worse, it just wasn’t in them: Rivers didn’t seem any more anxious or equipped to write the next “El Scorcho” or “Say It Ain’t So”-type millennial karaoke anthem than Brian Wilson was in the mid-’70s to return to the “Fun, Fun, Fun” of early Beach Boys.

And you know what? That was fine. Over 15 years of old-school fans and critics jumping ship due to the band’s inability to recapture the specific magic of Blue and Pinkerton, Rivers shrank back to simply being one of the 21st century’s most compellingly idiosyncratic pop songwriters. Weezer amassed a catalog of singularly oddball power-pop jams, pocket symphonies, and disquieting psych-self-evaluation ballads that was, if not quite the equal to their ’90s highs, at the very least a more fascinating and worthy late-period addendum than you’d believe given the “Should Weezer just go ahead and quit already?” discussion. The band would never have another song that could appear in a car-commercial singalong, but proper cultists would never be left wanting for new material to be challenged, frustrated, and (usually) won over by. It’s a respectable second life, more so than many — including Weezer themselves — would give them credit for.

But perhaps it wasn’t enough for a band whose songs once crept into the crevices of an entire generation’s DNA. And so Rivers and the boys hooked up with Jake Sinclair — the writer/producer who successfully helped Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco reinvent themselves for ’10s radio, and such a Weezer fanboy that he used to front his own tribute band — and they set out to get back to the Good Life. Rivers spent time hanging around randoms at Venice Beach and going on platonic Tinder dates, while Sinclair pushed the band to catch two simultaneous forms of ’90s lightning in a bottle: “All the brashness and unpredictability of Pinkerton with the summer Beach Boys grunge-pop of the Blue Album,” as he told Rolling Stone.

And so after two decades of wandering, it’s California, here we come, right back where we started from for Weezer on their tenth LP (and fourth to be self-titled), heretofore dubbed the White Album. The hooks are warm-weather, the lyrics blithely sentimental, the emotions nostalgic and deathless. The prospect of such a record at this point in Weezer’s career should be some combination of exciting and terrifying for longtime fans, the ratio of which should determine how much you’ve missed the sound of Classic Weerez and how wary you are of the idea of a now 45-year-old Rivers attempting to relive his Wonder Years on record. Of course, the latter isn’t as much of a stretch for Cuomo as it would be for some — to both his credit and his detriment, the frontman has never strayed terribly far from his confused, over-emotive adolescent persona on record, merely burrowed further into his subconscious with it and gotten weirder with some of his conclusions. But as logical as it sounds on paper, nothing is riskier than the All-the-Way-Back-to-Basics album for a band whose appeal ties so closely to youth for its acolytes — it’s a Gatsby-ish proposition that once failed, all but ensures you’ll never be able to repeat the past again.

It’s a relief, then, that The White Album not only matches the sounds and feelings of Buzz Bin-era Weezer, but also the craft. It might not be the best batch of songs Rivers has written since the ’90s — it lacks the compositional ambition and the revealing strangeness of 2008’s Red Album, and the Windexed new-wave poppiness of 2001’s Green — but its front-to-back coherence as the Third Weezer Album You Always Wanted But Long Gave Up Hoping For is simply staggering. From the guitar and xylophone chimes that open “California Kids” all the way through the cresting guitar wails and oceanside fade that closes “Endless Bummer,” the album’s facade never falters, and the songs never dip in quality to the point where the reality of the band’s aging becomes unignorable. Not even lifetime devotees Ozma or Rooney ever managed a ’90s Weezer facsimile this convincing or gratifying.

Take “Do You Wanna Get High?,” one of the earliest advance tracks from the record. The song builds from feedback intro to chugging verses to soaring chorus to tense bridge to tenser final chorus to release-filled outro with such comforting familiarity that anyone with even a casual familiarity of Pinkerton could draw a map of the song after hearing the first 15 seconds. (The guitar solo, it’s been mentioned and bears repeating, even echoes the “Pink Triangle” climax with borderline-Fogerty levels of self-plagiarism.)  But the guitar squeals pattern with the refrain harmonies as a gorgeous plaid flannel, the final “OHHHHH!!“s hit you like a shoulder to the sternum, and the narcotic imagery — decidedly absent in Classic Weezer — gives the song enough of a spark of the new and exciting that the track’s thrills never feel fully recycled. It’s got the weight of history, but still maintains a buoyancy entirely its own. Harder to pull off than you think.

That’s not to say that the LP is entirely orthodox in its alt-nation formalism, though. For every “King of the World” on the White Album, with its synth-shimmering guitars and gooey double-tracked vocals and wave-crashing drums, there’s a “Wind in Our Sails,” with a Jeff Lynne piano stomp, a block-party drum shuffle, and lyrics about Darwin, Sisyphus, and cumulonimbus clouds. Lead single “Thank God for Girls” is as batty as any Weezer song this century, a brain-fried run through four-and-a-half decades’ worth of sexual dumfoundedness (“I’m like an Indian Fakir try’n’a meditate on a bed of nails with my pants pulled down”) over three-and-a-half minutes of Ryan Lewis plonk and over-anxious guitars. It all works because it’s all as compact, punchy, and blooded as the band’s first two albums — if not nearly as confessional as those albums were at their most intestinal.

Ultimately, what The White Album presents us with is a sort of alternate-universe theory about Weezer LP3 — or a “That’s how it could have happened” Clue ending, if you’d prefer. It’s the follow-up to Pinkerton in a world where that album was received rapturously in its own time, and Rivers was allowed to fold his rock stardom in with his personality without all of the associated crises of faith and conscience that came along with it. It’s a logical development without being a complete left turn, and it shows both the increased confidence in songwriting and performance that’s supposed to come with success and maturity. It’s not so visceral that it makes you question what the last 20 years of unpredictably fired musical neurons were for, and the instrumental expansiveness and lyrical Rorschach blots of Red may ultimately prove more rewarding, but it’s a beautiful dream of the band as an entity that was allowed to evolve naturally and non-reactively. The world has turned and left Weezer back here, and as it turns out, it was well worth the wait.