TITLE: THE BLACK ALBUM
LABEL: ATLANTIC RECORDS
WORDS: JOE ARNOLD
Throughout their 25-year career, Weezer has often failed to please their fans. The abrasive ‘Pinkerton’ was initially reviled as a follow up to their debut, and the simple pop rock albums of the following 15 years were criticised for not being ‘Pinkerton’ once it had gained its much-deserved cult classic status. 2014’s ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’ – received as a return to form by press and fans – was presented as one long apology. For the first time since ‘Pinkerton’, ‘The Black Album’ sees Weezer trying something different on their own terms.
In the past, vocalist Rivers Cuomo has described Weezer’s sound as “Beach Boys with Marshall stacks”. On Black, the band retain their emphasis on vocal harmonies but forego the heavy guitars, becoming something akin to Beach Boys with synths and drum machines. Dance beats propel ‘Living In L.A.’ and ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ with a previously absent rhythmic flair. The latter unveils the new Weezer by opening the album with a funky acoustic guitar riff, slap bass and mariachi-style trumpets. Strong rhythmic sensibilities also manifest in 2nd track ‘Zombie Bastards’, in which the guitar, bass and drums play different syncopated rhythms that intertwine to create a confident, punchy feel.
“‘The Black Album’ sees Weezer trying something different on their own terms..”
Not every song fits into the dance music mould set by the first two tracks. One highlight is ‘High As A Kite’: a ‘70s-style piano ballad that swells with string instrumentation in the chorus for a highly cinematic feel. Many dismiss Weezer as a “joke” band, but this song proves they know how to make audiences tear up. Elsewhere, ‘Byzantine’ feels like a song one might hear playing in a French café with its shuffling beat, oozing harmonies and Flamenco-influenced guitars.However, not every stylistic excursion is successful. ‘Piece Of Cake’ – another piano ballad – falls flat with trite melodies and repetitive lyrics. ‘The Prince Who Wanted Everything’ (the album’s most straightforwardly Rock-influenced song) suffers from underdevelopment. Its vocals, crunchy guitars and toe-tapping beat barely change throughout its run-time and so it becomes unforgivably dull.
Hidden beneath the songs’ poppy exteriors is a plethora of dark lyrical subjects such as isolation, the overwhelming nature of modern life, and the perils of escapism. Contrasting with the apologies of ‘Everything Will Be Alright In The End’, many songs on Black criticise fans and music industry executives for their entitlement and excess. On ‘Zombie Bastards’, Cuomo sings “Music saved my life” and “If I die, it means that I lived my life/ And that’s much better than hidin’ in a hole”; finally ready to forge his own path after years of trying to please his critics.
Black’s lyrical standout is ‘I’m Just Being Honest’, which tells the story of a fan who hands Cuomo a demo CD. Instead of lying to please the fan, he states “your band sounds like shit”. Later he tells a loved one he doesn’t like their haircut and is told “I hope you like sleeping on the floor”. This song could easily come across as elitist and mean, but Cuomo’s excellent comic timing makes it undeniably funny.
“Hidden beneath the songs’ poppy exteriors is a plethora of dark lyrical subjects such as isolation, the overwhelming nature of modern life, and the perils of escapism.”
Any album this varied will feature some weaker songs. While ‘I’m Just Being Honest’ and ‘Can’t Knock The Hustle’ reward multiple listens with countless layers and flourishes, the boring verses and underwhelming chorus of ‘Too Many Thoughts In My Head’ long outstay their welcome. However, when Weezer gets it right, the songs are fantastic. Instrumental performances are mostly great. By turning down the distortion, the band is able to indulge in some wonderfully varied guitar playing; from funky acoustic riffs to spacey leads. Many of the bass and drum parts are so strong that they make previous releases seem retroactively weaker. One wonders where this inventive rhythm section has been hiding for 20 years.
Closing track ’California Snow’ best summarises the experience of listening to Black. With no transition from the relaxed ‘Byzantine’, it shocks the listener with an aggressive arpeggiated synth, replicating the surprise experienced by long-term fans at the beginning of the album. A weak rapped verse follows, but then the synth bass and the drums kick in for a brilliant chorus. Like Black as a whole, ‘California Snow’ is flawed, but worth persevering through because the good bits are simply excellent. But it is clear from the album’s lyrics that Weezer no longer care what we think. They have suffered enough at the hands of critics and are finally creating music on their terms. Black is not perfect, but the passion is plain to see.