Weezer were supposed to cosplay 2020 in the image of Rivers Cuomo’s pop-metal idols Van Halen: after forays into lounge-pop, Jay-Z homage, trap production, and Toto covers, the self-explanatory Van Weezer promised “back to big guitars,” an album-length prologue for barnstorming baseball stadiums with fellow Monsters of KROQ Fall Out Boy and Green Day; the yearlong delay of both tour and album suggests that they’re a package deal, and that if Hella Mega Tour has to once again reschedule its optimistic July kickoff in America, there might not be a point in dropping Van Weezer either. In the meantime, here’s OK Human: crafted in the image of Cuomo’s orchestral-pop hermit heroes, announced and released within the span of two weeks, an album that owes its lyrical content and entire existence to pandemic living. But no matter how many obvious differences exist between OK Human and Van Weezer, it’s really just splitting hairs—it all ends up being inevitably and unmistakably Weezer.
Mind you, OK Human is not the “Weezer” that still exists as a reference point for any new alt-rock act toying with fuzz pedals and self-deprecation. This time, Cuomo entrusts a 38-piece orchestra with fleshing out a collection of demos, showing all-in commitment to a new bit after years of mimeographing his own sound. Cuomo references Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy, Harry Nilsson, and, of course, Pet Sounds as sonic ideals, though he never quite convincingly taps into a spiritual connection with those artists. More telling is Weezer’s choice of collaborators—Jake Sinclair and Rob Mathes, the producer/arranger tag-team best known for their work with Panic! At the Disco, a band that, like Weezer, recognizes the value of cringe virality. But though “Numbers” or “Playing My Piano” show that Cuomo is surprisingly well-suited to candelabra-lit balladry, there’s just as much material here that uses strings and horns to replicate their stock power chords and vocal-doubling guitar solos.
It turns out that it doesn’t really matter if Cuomo is writing for synthesizer, guitar, harpsichord, string section—through sheer endurance, Weezer transcends sound. “Weezer” is a perspective of the world that belongs exclusively to Rivers Cuomo; a pop-culture obsessive with an extremely limited capacity to take on new information; a man with an insatiable creative streak that requires almost no artistic spark. Give a play-by-play of “Grapes of Wrath” and there’s no question as to its author: the chorus pump-fakes the melody of “Electric Avenue” and immediately reveals itself as product placement for the Audible app. In the lyrics, Cuomo confounds a perfectly relatable impulse—coping with the crushing mundanity of lockdown by escaping into literature—with a reading syllabus of Catch-22, 1984, Moby Dick, and Lord of the Rings that most have grudgingly checked off before high school graduation. As always, it feels like he’s trolling us. Yet, there’s more than 25 years of Weezer music like this, outlining a squareness so pure that it’s virtually avant-garde, so how can anyone doubt that he means every word of it?
And so judging OK Human on subjective ideas of “quality” feels about as futile as it would for a cleaning product; the only question is whether it gets the job done, and after hearing “Aloo Gobi” or “Grapes of Wrath” once, I anticipate that in 2041, I’ll either hear them in a Ralphs or rattling around my brain whether I want them to or not. OK Human is Cuomo’s ideal of pop as a craftsman’s pursuit, songs that aspire to the universality and utility of jingles. And yet, Weezer songs most often feel like self-driving cars on cruise control until Cuomo decides to steer the thing off a cliff—throwing in an ill-considered rap cadence, a reference to BLACKPINK or the Morton Salt girl that immediately questions whether Cuomo is writing for anyone other than himself. It’s the Hollywood adage of “one for them, one for me” playing out on a second-by-second basis.
Yet even as he writes about dodging Zoom interviews and what he ate for dinner, it still feels as impersonal as water-cooler small talk; both effortless and try-hard at the same time. “Numbers” or “Screens” or “Aloo Gobi” or “Here Comes the Rain” say nothing novel about living in 2021 (i.e., social media is an endless, no-win competition; we spend even more time on our phones; even enjoyable routines can become exhausting) aside from confirming that Rivers Cuomo still lives amongst the rest of us. The common threads celebrities try to establish with civilians have proven to be pretty flimsy throughout the past year, but they’re enough to give OK Human an emotional binding missing from nearly every album they’ve made in the past 20 years. Even if “an orchestral COVID album” makes OK Human the most gimmicky Weezer album (of original songs) twice over, it gets across why Cuomo keeps the brand going. “Playing My Piano” finds Cuomo at his most quarantined, staring at the keys to the point where his wife, children cease to exist, or, true to form, “Kim Jong-Un could blow up my city, I’d never know.” Cringe in second-hand embarrassment or hear it as a clumsy, endearing part of him fumbling through the only means of communicating with the outside world. Either way, that’s Weezer for you.
Buy: Rough Trade
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