Imagine for a moment that you’re Rivers Cuomo. After a two-album experiment producing shiny pop songs, which largely disproves the hypothesis “maybe Weezer should be an EDM band?” you’ve pivoted back to your band’s core appeal: heavy distortion, lyrical disaffection, and a rough-around-the-edges sonic quality. Critics herald the sound as a “return to form,” comparing songs written in 2016 to songs you wrote when you were 23. But you’re not 23. You’re almost 50, you live at the beach, and even though your aging emo fanbase wants grunge, you want to make a surf pop record.
Pacific Daydream, the eleventh studio album from Weezer, is nothing if not explicit in its pursuit of pleasure. The album’s conception goes something like this: Rivers returns from an extensive tour with Panic! At the Disco with plans to write Black Album, a moody, gothic follow-up to 2016’s White Album. As he begins to pen new songs, he finds that they just don’t fit the darkness he had envisioned for the record, so he collects these new, uptempo tracks in a folder titled “Pacific Daydream.” Perhaps inspired by his tour buddies, he reaches out to pop punk luminary Butch Walker, who masterfully produced Panic! and Fall Out Boy’s forays into polished arena rock. Relatively quickly, a new album is born.
It’s disappointing, then, that this impulse of creative energy has resulted in a record that feels flat and strained. In an interview with L.A. Times about the album, Rivers talks about studying pop music methodically, trying to reduce it to a formula. Unfortunately, his efforts to reverse-engineer a pop hit result in songs that are awkward and instantly forgettable. Sure, “Beach Boys” is technically perfect pop song, with a plucky bassline that gives way to a booming chorus. But those rhythmic checkmarks don’t make up for hollow lyrics, nearly a quarter of which are just repetitions of the phrase, “Give it up for The Beach Boys.”
The apex of this pop-by-numbers approach is album single “Feels Like Summer,” which borrows from the sounds of EDM-inflected rock championed by acts like Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran. From the overdubbed vocals to the chorus that insists that “it feels like summer,” the song is imploring you to enjoy it. Repeating one phrase fifteen times can be a recipe for success—“Gucci Gang,” for example—but that phrase has to be memorable, not something you might hear a coworker say on an unseasonably warm October day. The heavy reliance on reverb and drum machines mixed with Rivers’ blithe, empty lyrics paint an eerie picture of a band that studied pop music for years but never left the house.
Strange lyrical non sequiturs, usually Weezer’s bread-and-butter, feel out of place against choruses that so desperately want you to relate that they’re about nothing at all. The idiosyncrasies that are the hallmark of any Weezer album are still there, but here they seem like careless attempts at authenticity rather than a quirky loner’s diary entries. To inspire songwriting efforts for the album, Rivers Cuomo went on a series of “lyrical experiments,” including platonic Tinder dates and a night carolling with young women in Echo Park. His extracurricular effort is too obvious: On album closer “Friend of Diane’s,” Rivers talks about working at Papa John’s on New Years Eve, a story so distant from his current reality that he must have stolen the tidbit from some poor, unassuming teenager he “studied” for the record. Many of the album’s cultural references feel this way, like they were ripped from the mouths of young people and thrown together without context. Passing meditations on step counts, college majors, and astrology come across as convincingly as Steve Buscemi disguised as a high schooler.
It isn’t all overproduced pop hooks. In fact, when Weezer decides to put down the synthesizers and pick up their guitars again, the result is a mature, melancholic sound that feels like a natural progression for the band. On “QB Blitz,” Rivers croons about growing old and finding love in a way that feels both distinct and relatable, backed by a cheeky, twangy bassline that wouldn’t feel out of place on Smiley Smile. The minimal, twinkly production on song’s final bridge underscores the wistfulness in River’s tone.
To his credit, Rivers’ vocals are strong across the board on this album, switching confidently from party hype-man to lovelorn crooner with impressive acumen. On tracks like “Sweet Mary,” he hits falsettos unheard since the Pinkerton days without a trace of that album’s whiney punkiness. Butch Walker, who previously worked with Weezer on the infamous Raditude, spit-shines the band’s recordings while allowing their weirdness to breathe a bit more than on their autotune-heavy 2009 release. Removed from the Spotify zeitgeist and stripped of their ironic put-on as wannabe mumble rappers, Weezer can still create songs that feel authentic to both their history and their present. But the longer Rivers indulges his desire to be the next Post Malone, the more awkward it will become to tell him that he can’t pull off the hairstyle.