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Weezer Is Still Making This Difficult for Themselves

The ’90s alt-rock icons ditch their covers shtick and return this week with their self-titled Black Album, their latest spreadsheet-generated offering that won’t get fans any closer to Rivers Cuomo and Co.’s true feelings

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Writing a hit song is easy. Take it from Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo, who in 2016 explained his straightforward process to the podcast Song Exploder, unpacking a peppy new tune called “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori.” I use the word straightforward sarcastically.

So. First, consult your Spotify playlist of existing songs with cool chord progressions. Steal one. Grab an electric guitar. Record yourself replaying that chord progression through a Maximum ’90s distortion pedal. Put the title of the original song into an online anagram generator. Name your new audio file after one of those anagrams, so you forget about the original song and its lyrical associations but can find it again if you really need it for a podcast or something. Do vocal improvs over your new file. (“You see all these walls are mirrored behind you, so I can do all these crazy poses and stuff,” Cuomo explained. “Get in the mood.”) Work out a chorus melody, because as (Oscar winner!) Lady Gaga says, if you don’t have a good chorus, you’re already screwed.

Next, pick a song title from your giant spreadsheet of cool song titles. (“Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is a reference to a conversation Cuomo had with his daughter’s second-grade teacher.) For the lyrics, consult your other, much larger spreadsheet of cool lines for songs, culled from your daily stream-of-consciousness “Morning Pages” freewriting exercises and sorted by number of syllables, which syllable in each individual word is accented, etc. Sing the guitar solo before you play it to avoid the usual Guitar God bullshit. Consult, grudgingly, the rest of your band. Cut the full song, including multiple vocal tracks of you and your bandmates doing ad-libs and wolf whistles and whatnot, just to shake things up. Repeat this 10 to 12 times until you have an album. Pick a color. Name the album after that color. Put it out, and thereby enrage anywhere from 60 to 95 percent of your fan base. Repeat until you run out of chord progressions, or spreadsheets, or colors, or fan base goodwill.

“Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori,” on account of it being an original Weezer composition released in the last 15 years, is not a hit song. (It appears on 2016’s self-titled “White Album,” which also features songs called “L.A. Girlz,” “Thank God for Girls,” and “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing.”) But it is nonetheless a perfectly hooky and genial pop-punk jam whose lyrics somehow grow more, not less, profound when you understand the bonkers spreadsheet-based means by which they were Frankenstein’d together: “Good witch or bad witch / God is a woman / I wish I hadn’t played the prude / She touched my ankle / Paranoid android / I felt it in my molecules.”

The goal, as with nearly every song on every Weezer record since the first two, is to obfuscate Cuomo’s intent, and indeed his very humanity, entirely. “It sounds like something happened in my life, and then I observed it, and then I wrote a song about it, and it’s coherent—there’s a beginning, middle, and end,” he concluded. “And that’s totally not the case at all. Each line is from a completely different place, and I just reassembled them in some order that suggests a story that never happened.” Big laugh. “It’s a crazy way to write.” And maybe the only way he can live.

Being a rock star is hard. The conventional wisdom with Weezer is that at first contact, everyone despised the L.A. alt-rock band’s second album, 1996’s raw and violent and brazenly problematic Pinkerton, so thoroughly that Cuomo couldn’t help but take it personally, and vowed never to make any of his work personal ever again. “Everybody hated it,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2001. “Critics, the majority of our fans, most of my friends and family, the other band members. … Everyone thought it was an embarrassment. One of the worst albums of all time.” And soon Cuomo hated it, too: “It’s just a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way,” he told Rolling Stone that same year, boasting that the band’s much-delayed third record, 2001’s self-titled Green Album, was “purely musical. There’s no feeling, there’s no emotion.”

The Green Album generated several peppy, abstract rock-radio hits, including “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun,” which you may know by heart even if you despise them. I confess that I, myself, still love them. I have loved Weezer ever since I endeavored for weeks in high school to tape the band’s very first hit, 1994’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” off the radio onto an actual cassette tape. And unfortunately, I loved Pinkerton, from its opening track called “Tired of Sex” to its masturbation fantasy about a teenage fan to its lurid shout-out to “half-Japanese girls,” most of all. That album became, for both good and profound ill, a cult classic and emo touchstone, scabrous proof that the uglier the sentiment, the purer the artist. (“Pinkerton’s great,” Cuomo told Pitchfork in 2008, finally coming around himself. “It’s super-deep, brave, and authentic.”) But to love these fellas is perhaps to loathe, on a molecular level, yourself.

Most likely you are aware that in 2018, Weezer did a goofy cover of Toto’s “Africa” after a sustained Twitter campaign launched at random by a 14-year-old fan. The video stars “Weird Al” Yankovic and directly parodies the semi-iconic Spike Jonze video for “Undone (The Sweater Song),” just to further cloud the band’s intent.

Just kidding: The band’s intent, as always, was to get attention. Same deal with January’s self-titled Teal Album, a surprise-release all-covers affair that leads off with “Africa” and also features ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (adorably scruffy), A-Ha’s “Take on Me” (surprisingly poignant), and TLC’s “No Scrubs” (world-historically terrible; shout-out Dynamite Hack). The Teal Album is pointless at best and newly infuriating at worst. Which makes it a fine preamble for the real new Weezer record, the self-titled Black Album, out Friday, which is hard to love but also harder to hate than you may imagine or prefer. As a collection of syllables, it suffices. As a conveyor of emotions, it will, impressively after all these years, confound you anew. We are dealing with either the best terrible band or the worst great band of their generation. We will never be free of them, or they, apparently, from us.

I have had the cornball mariachi hook to the Black Album’s lousy first single and leadoff track, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” stuck in my head for much of the past 72 hours. “Hasta luego,” Cuomo sings on the hook. “Adios.” The video stars Pete Wentz as a rideshare driver; the presumably spreadsheet-based lyrics include such lines as “I’m an ugly motherfucker / But I work hella harder / And you can write a blog about it,” and “Leave a five-star review and I’ll leave you one, too” and “Don’t step to me, bitch.” (Late in 2018, Cuomo explained to Rolling Stone that he’d recently started swearing.) I’m not happy about any of this, and neither are you.

Very little on this planet is worse than Bad Weezer. This applies to their colossally knuckleheaded 2005 song “Beverly Hills” (all the worse for it being their single biggest hit) and their 2009 album called Raditude, and their subsequent 2010 album called Hurley that had Jorge Garcia’s face on the cover, and the Teal Album in concept if not quite execution. (Though their cover of “Stand by Me” sucks, also.)

What is all the more insidious, from a beleaguered fan’s perspective, is that they’ve spent the past decade or so showing just enough signs of life to prevent you from leaving them for dead. Maybe your lifeline is 2002’s “Keep Fishin’” (a.k.a. the Muppet song), or 2008’s “Pork and Beans” (a.k.a. the Viral Sensation song), or 2014’s “Go Away,” wherein Cuomo and Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino lovingly sing the title to one another ad nauseam. (That one at least felt less like a total-spreadsheet deal.)

The Black Album, at first blush, is reliably chaotic. There is an earnest song called “Zombie Bastards.” There is an even more earnest song called “Too Many Thoughts in My Head” that begins with the lines “Stay up reading Mary Poppins / Overwhelmed by Netflix options.” There is a draggy glam-rock song called “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” that sounds like post-extinction T. Rex. There is a gentle piano ballad called “High As a Kite” whose video is a disquietingly hostile parody of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There is, climactically, a nauseous and vaguely swaggering tune called “California Snow” that reminds me of that Kanye West–Kid Cudi album; maybe I’m trolling, and maybe they are. You can write a blog about all of that, too.

But there is also “Living in L.A.,” one of several songs that flirts with Tame Impala–style psych-pop and manages to stick in your head in less nefarious ways. The Black Album is produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, an art-rocker for the common man (and Scarlett Johansson) who gives even this record’s cruddier moments an eerie extraterrestrial sheen and endows the rest with an unexpected beauty (the “Living in L.A.” bridge especially) that sounds nearly human. That song’s lyrics, too, come closest to transcending Cuomo’s convoluted songwriting process: “We’re fortune’s fools when we took the bait / We sacrifice our lives for rock ’n’ roll / Je ne sais pas, burning at the stake / We never really had a choice at all.” From “Heartsongs” to “Back to the Shack,” late-period Weezer’s best songs tend to concern the trials and tribulations of being late-period Weezer.

I don’t hear emotions in Weezer’s music anymore; just the spreadsheets. That is by design. Cuomo is reluctant to approach even social media in a non-baffling way. In December, Saturday Night Live did a sketch where Matt Damon and Leslie Jones get in a screaming fight over the band at a dinner party; one of the biggest laugh lines, which doubles as the most ridiculous thing the sketch’s writers could think of, is when Damon announces, “‘Pork and Beans’ is better than ‘Buddy Holly,’” one of the band’s earliest hits and least-guilty pleasures. The line lands like a chair to the head. Weezer started selling merch based on the skit immediately; Cuomo tweeted that he cried while watching it.

But this, too, was misdirection: “I didn’t watch it,” he confessed to The New York Times Magazine, though “I’m sure that would be my reaction if I did see it.” Snapchat aside, it turns out he uses social media for only a few hours on Fridays, and most of his tweets are thus auto-loaded at a three-a-day clip, and while “it’s 100 percent sincere and reflecting how I’m feeling at the time, probably only 20 percent of it is literally from me. The rest is cut and paste.” Furthermore, “My new passion is computer programming. I’ve been writing a program to generate our set lists for our tour with the Pixies. I get almost sexually aroused looking at spreadsheets.” The desired effect is that his die-hard fans will continue to find his lust for automation hopelessly compelling and erotic. This is not how lust, or technology, or good music works. But ever since the world broke Cuomo’s heart, that is how Weezer works, in those fleeting but still-beguiling moments when the band works at all.