Synesthesia may very well be the key to why humans create multimedia art, why movies have soundtracks, or why recorded albums have cover art. The term literally means “union of the senses,” and studies of the phenomenon help explain why we put visuals to sound, and vice versa: Synesthetes frequently experience their own involuntary sensory responses when other senses are stimulated. One of the most common forms to manifest itself is grapheme-color synesthesia, the perception of letters and numbers as specific colors, especially vowels. I’ve personally experienced the letter “A” being red since I was young enough to remember, “E” as yellow,” “O” as blue, and “U” as green. For some reason “I” is fuzzier, but usually scans yellow for me.
Thus, “hearing” colors when listening to music is common for both musicians and their audience. Frank Ocean is a known synnie, who notably named 2012’s lavishly lauded channel ORANGE after the color he saw when he first fell in love. Genres as disparate as black metal and the blues are associated with colors because someone somewhere decided that blue evokes sadness and black symbolizes the departed. Bands as paramount as the Beatles and Metallica have named an album by letting its own monochromatic cover speak for itself, and those albums, the White Album and Black Album respectively, have gone on to become essential moments in their careers. (The Hives’ Black and White Album, not so much.)
With the possible exception of relative newcomers Baroness — whose entire hard-rock discography is color-coded with fantastical paintings by frontman John Baizley — no other artist has hitched their work to the rainbow like Weezer, whose bright 1994 Blue debut is their ice-classic Kind of Blue, with its non-primary follow-up Pinkerton their feverishly deconstructionist Bitches Brew. This week, they’ll release their own White Album, which follows Blue, Green and Red interspersed throughout their discography with other titles like Maladroit, Raditude, and Everything Will Be Alright in the End. It’s easy to call the color series a gimmick, and that claim might not be unfounded: The cover of 2010’s Hurley features Jorge Garcia’s eponymous character from Lost, which is as inscrutable as it gets.
But Rivers Cuomo is no ordinary rock star, he’s an obsessive. In 2002, Rolling Stone‘s Jenny Eliscu reported that Cuomo was organizing his songs by spreadsheet and maintaining a binder he called his “Encyclopedia of Pop,” containing a breakdown of every Nirvana, Oasis and Green Day song, trying to mathematically dissect them in order to achieve his own formula for perfect songwriting. He may or not still number his own songs — he proudly displayed No. 377 for Eliscu — but every couple of Weezer releases, he still finds a representative color in place of an album title to represent that grouping of his latest work. He’s the rare rock star who might actually be more obsessive than his own fans, attempting to qualitatively evaluate himself before they or any critics do. He’s written a song with and taken feedback from his supporters, such as putting “Slob” on 2002’s Maladroit by request. Why was it on the menu? Because fans had access to the demos, of course.
In the spirit of Weezer’s historically surgical documentation of themselves, SPIN spoke to synesthete and certified tetrachromat Maureen Seaberg — who co-authored the book Struck by Genius, about a man who developed synesthesia and other gifts as the result of a real-life brain injury — about the significance of color to this band.
“I would say the overall sounds of the albums, for me, were consistent,” Seaberg says over the phone from her Staten Island home. “But they didn’t match their color choices, ever,” she adds, laughing. “But that’s fine, because that’s what synesthesia is.”
Weezer [The Blue Album] (1994)
It seems safe to say that in 1994, Weezer was just growing accustomed to a record deal and having hits, not planning a small career’s worth of self-titled albums. Blue is a calming, neutral aesthetic for a debut album cover, conveying both the sunlit waves of “Surf Wax America” and the titular globe of “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here.” The electric blue chosen for the cover is both friendly and vivid, and — focusing on the synesthetic effect — feels like the right new-wave sheen for producer Ric Ocasek’s synth break on “Buddy Holly.”
Seaberg says: You know what was funny, on “Holiday,” if I listen to the sound — the instrument and the voice — it’s very brown, white, yellow. Other people might get individual notes. But then the song is a very Caribbean, blue thought. I think we all go there, like a beach, right? And if I look at the word “holiday,” the “H” is indigo, and the “O” and “I” are white. So there are three things going on there for me, like layers.
While Pinkerton has plenty of catchy songs, both Rivers and fans have noted it feels as far from “pop” as possible: the skinned-knee self-production, uncompromising creepiness of the lyrics, and all-around bled-out blackness and isolation makes the cover’s wintry landscape from ukiyo-e master Hiroshige aptly appropriated.
Seaberg says: The title of “Tired of Sex” is yellow and green letters, and the screechy riff at the beginning goes bile-y yellow on me. And I’m left with that thing as an aftertaste of the whole song; I can feel it in an annoying tingling on the bottom of my top lip. If he was trying to get that [dissonance] across, he certainly did for me. On “Getchoo,” the highest note I can actually feel inside my right ear canal has kind of that weird awareness before you get an ear infection.
Weezer [The Green Album] (2001)
Bright, almost-neon lime certainly exists in nature, but there’s an artificiality to the Green album cover that suggests futuristic plasticity within. The ten-song track list and familiar (if not-quite-correct) font have an uncanny-valley vibe, like you’re having déjà vu for the debut or being tricked by a Cylon, albeit a friendly one. It suggests both shiny-new Weezer and a self-conscious discovery of the canny marketing they’ll go on to play with more. The songs are often derided as the band’s most perfunctory, but they deserve more admiration for the same reason we praise, say, “Teenage Dream.” It’s as beautiful and infallible as a Rube Goldberg device.
Seaberg says: I really love “Photograph” off the Green Album. I think it’s so beautifully composed, but there’s also something about what Rivers’ voice does: It’s pale yellow and comes down in, like, a sheet to me, going diagonally in my right field of vision, away from me from right to left. It’s one of the most beautiful forms I’ve ever seen among synesthesia photisms, which are really infinite. But I’m very, very fond of that song. And I do hope he’s a member of the tribe, ‘cause we’d all like to claim him. Another genius for the mix. [Laughs.]
“I didn’t really understand that one,” frequent cover photographer Sean Murphy admits of Maladroit’s cover, which evokes found art. This LP is where the band OD’d on spontaneity, with the most tracks on a Weezer album to date produced in the shortest timespan, given a slapdash (albeit fitting) title by a fan and tons of message-board feedback for the crunchy and unusually structured songs. Gold-brown is a fitting “theme” for it, evoking both Eddie Van Halen’s “brown” guitar sound and Ween’s alike.
Seaberg says: Maladroit is a purple-yellow title. [Ed. Note: I can actually see this.] The brown bass chords are coming toward me in “Dope Nose” and shaped like lots of rays, while “American Gigolo” is a yellow and brown title and the song is heavily white from the dominant drum beats.
Make Believe (2005)
Weezer’s first true disappointment came with an early sense of dread: the feeling of embarrassment at the Mr. Rogers-esque title, and the almost insulting simplicity of the first single “Beverly Hills.” The cover — band photo cutouts, clip-art style, over black-and-white designs on something like a button-down shirt Guy Fieri would wear — somehow felt more blank than the plainer designs on Blue or Green. You could somehow tell this was going to be their first album devoid of color in more than one way.
Seaberg says: Make Believe is a purple and brown title, and “Hold Me” is indigo, purple, and red. The rolling guitar melody at the beginning can be felt on the skin below each of my eyes; when the big bass comes in it’s like a deep brown slap across my forehead. “This Is Such a Pity” has consistently brown guitars, white drums, and silver cymbals, but I note when he sings “Everything is black,” I see black. It seems that colors in lyrics can affect visualization.
Weezer [The Red Album] (2008)
Admittedly, it’s difficult to connect red to this one. It’s an ebullient, primary color, and bright, blocky moments like “Troublemaker” and “Pork and Beans” do evoke it. But Red also has more stylistic detours than any other Weezer album, and they do trigger synesthetic responses: The sweep of “Heart Songs” is a strong traffic-light yellow. The Village People-inspired costumes on the cover feel like they do more to convey the sound than the associated hue itself.
Seaberg says: If Rivers is operating from synesthesia, it would never necessarily be metaphoric. We all say red with anger, purple with rage, green with envy, but if he’s in a happy place because he’s become a father, and he’s exploring all these new emotions, as a synesthete, he might very well associate that with red. It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just that automatic impression that he’s wired for. The fact that it doesn’t make metaphoric sense makes more synesthetic sense. “Dreamin’” is a brown-orange-red-yellow word, almost like autumn leaves, though, and I notice the brown bass in “Pork and Beans” is a lava flowing outward, bookending two thirds of my visual field.
Raditude (2009) and Hurley (2010)
Two albums mostly considered lesser to fans, Raditude and Hurley have almost negligent color identities, with Raditude’s cover a wacky borrowed photo that succeeds in getting one hyped for their most shameless release to date even though it ultimately falls short. Aside from Hurley’s infamously glib cover portrait though, the aquamarine back and spines do in fact match up with their “shiniest” arena-crunch album since Green.
Seaberg says: “The Girl Got Hot” is a yellow, brown and indigo title [Ed. Note: Yellow and brown are indeed as close as Raditude‘s cover has to a color profile.]; I notice first that I want to dance and I believe dance is a form of involuntary movement sometimes and can be synesthetic. I want to raise both arms up to shoulder height, bring them down, and repeat. On “Trainwrecks,” the synthesizer-like sound at the word “trainwrecks” is glass-like light orange formed like foam and falling top to bottom. On “Smart Girls,” a green and brown title, the heavy harmonies are very white as if all the colors of the various voices are bleeding into one.
Everything Will Be Alright in the End (2014)
This one’s a flawless marriage of title and concept: What better to evoke a band attempting to come full circle than a misty autumn palette? Also, Cuomo has a neat habit of sepia-tinting his most “rock” albums (Pinkerton, Maladroit) as opposed to the Skittles-toned “pop” ones, whether he knows it or not.
Seaberg says: The first letter of a word or a sentence, for some reason in all synesthetes, not just me, dominates the rest of them. “Everything” begins with “E,” and “E” is very red for me, and then it’s bookended by, literally, “End,” which is also very red for me. So the jumble of letters in between kind of swim in this red. So red gets to be very dominant. Then individual songs — yellow voice, brown guitar, white drums, once again. “The British Are Coming” is a yellow, brown, and white title; its piano is white and I feel it as a soft brush of my right cheek.
Weezer [The White Album] (2016)
“I don’t know for sure, but it seems like they don’t have the album art picked out when they go into each shoot,” says photographer Sean Murphy, who did the cover for the White Album. “We were just walking on Venice Beach. It was very grassroots, run-and-gun guerrilla style.” He previously shot the cover for Red, which “had a couple more ideas and there was some concept to it,” but both he and Green cover photographer Marina Chavez confirm via phone that the famed background color for those respective releases was selected afterward, without their input. “I think they like holding their cards to their chest to be honest with you,” says Murphy. “I don’t know what goes on with Rivers, he’s got a lot on his mind.”
One guess is that the White Album represents a rebirth, a return to conceptual intent after the unkempt randomness of Raditude and Hurley, and even Everything Will Be Alright in the End looked backward for inspiration. White is the band’s surfiest, sandiest album since Blue, but the light on these cloudless, uncomplicated musings is clearly ahead of them, and they’re moving toward it.
Seaberg says: “California Kids” is light blue and teal, and the song’s [glockenspiel] sound is like aqua glassy dots fanning outward. “L.A. Girlz” is a very yellow title — odd because only my “A” is yellow here. Perhaps it’s the idea of sunny California overriding the other colors? The song’s cymbals are dominant, very silvery rays going from bottom to top. It’s funny, white is actually a black word to me.