Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo referred to his 1996 album Pinkerton as “a sick album, sick in a diseased sort of way” in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone, and understandably so. The songs were deeply personal, ranging from Cuomo’s sexual fantasies to his experiences with imposter syndrome as a Harvard student. It was ugly, rife with detail, and soon became a beloved album heralded for its authenticity. Despite this, Weezer has learned from the trauma that comes with baring that much of oneself on an album, and their subsequent releases have been hit or miss.
In the nearly three decades since then, Weezer has cemented themselves as one of the few rock bands with some steam left in them, appealing to several generations with their infectious hooks and stunning melodies. They studied the power-pop book, and the legacy left behind by their beloved producer Ric Ocasek of The Cars, to build their framework. Their winning streak started with 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End and ended with 2017’s Pacific Daydream, eventually redeeming themselves with their orchestral OK Human. Then, they reminded everyone about their metal album Van Weezer.
“Metal” should be used lightly, and press materials ping-pong back and forth between “hard rock” and “metal” as a driving influence behind this long-awaited record. This isn’t to be unexpected, as a long-haired Cuomo was previously in a progressive metal band called Avant Garde, and Weezer performed under the name Goat Punishment and did a number of live Nirvana covers. So why is it so hard for them to get the heaviness right?
At its best, Van Weezer is a Weezer album, for lack of a better term. The soaring guitar riffs are coated in nostalgia, reminiscent of licks present on The Green Album and Maladroit, the latter of which received the most comparisons to Van Weezer. Each song sounds straight out of a stadium. It feels like second nature to clap and stomp. Even the few Easter eggs put into the album to appeal to classic rock fans, such as the Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” briefly being referenced in the intro to “The End of the Game,” or the interpolation of Ozzy Osbourne’s iconic “Crazy Train” on “Blue Dream,” are well done, but that feels like the extent of this album’s ambitions, giving the bare minimum in mainstream rock references without much else to show for it.
Van Weezer plays it safe. It refuses to linger on anything outside of their tried-and-true power-pop formula for longer than a few seconds, unlike their willingness to shred and hint on their punk and grunge roots with past songs such as “Hash Pipe” on Green and “We Are All On Drugs” on Make Believe. There are glimpses of that magic on tracks such as “Hero,” with a chorus that is begging to be screamed in the post-pandemic bliss when shows return, and “Sheila Can Do It” has hooks and cheesy solos and keys that feel perfectly on-brand for Weezer in the best way. That’s what makes this album so frustrating, because Weezer has clearly laid out the framework for what they are capable of achieving, but won’t expand on it. Even the Maladroit comparison feels unwarranted because they achieved that delicate balance of darker sounds with their evolving pop leanings.
The lyrics are the most glaring issue of the album, and one can’t help but wonder why Cuomo would be deeply ashamed of singing, “It’s a crying shame I’m all alone / Not with you, nor her, nor anyone / Won’t you knock me on my head? / Crack it open, let me outta here” on “Why Bother?” off Pinkerton, but has no problem singing, “Pump it up into me / Please, daddy / Please, daddy” on “1 More Hit.” It’s not like Cuomo has issues with songwriting, either, as OK Human saw some of his most simplistic songwriting that still carried such a warmth and depth that is found at least a handful of times on each of their albums.
Van Weezer picks and chooses what parts of hard rock and metal they want to write a love letter to, opting to write songs without much lyrical content. “Blue Dream” starts with “The fishes are my friends / underneath the sea / swimming all around / they want to be with me,” because I guess Cuomo’s solution to cope with rejection is to hang out at an aquarium, which isn’t bad until you remember he’s a 50-year-old man with a wife and children. It’s not to say lyrics can’t be about fictional partners or fictional worlds, but most songs on the album deal with wanting to get laid, dreaming of being a rockstar, and nameless women that an omnipresent Cuomo watches as they shave their legs. Unless Van Weezer was marketed as a concept album revolving around a down-on-his-luck rockstar fulfilling his rockstar fantasies as a way to escape the pains of daily life, the album feels lazy and uninspired. Even then, that concept gives Weezer too much credit.
The album, as a standard Weezer album, is to be expected. Once the expectation is set up for an album inspired by the likes of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and KISS, it’s to be expected that it feels like a misstep. If the band presented Van Weezer as a tongue-in-cheek look at ‘80s metal stereotypes or as another one of their albums in their assembly line of music that just so happens to be partially inspired by some of their favorite bands, this might be different. It is an album that would make Tenacious D roll their eyes and make metal fans scratch their heads. Weezer, commit to the bit. You have it in you.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.