Weezer: Back to the Beginning

Music Features Weezer

In the bridge section of “Back to the Shack,” the anthemic leadoff single from Weezer’s new album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, bandleader Rivers Cuomo sings “If we die in obscurity, oh well—at least we raised some hell.” It’s a curious assertion of the urge to make music for its own sake coming from the leader of an iconic rock band two decades into a streak of smash hits destined to be played on the radio for as long as some form of radio exists. After all, what could Rivers Cuomo possibly tell us about the prospect of dying in obscurity, a predicament he’ll never have to face?

In order to ascertain Cuomo’s genuine perspective on the subject, we would have to travel back in time and locate him during the period before Weezer became a household name. Essentially, this is what Cuomo elects to do on the new album, which repeatedly references the past—nowhere more explicitly than on “Shack,” with its fist-pumping paean to “rock out like it’s ‘94” and its intentional revisiting of what Cuomo first expressed on the Weezer song “In the Garage” from the band’s self-titled 1994 debut, the first of three self-titled albums commonly referred to as The Blue Album, The Green Album and The Red Album.

Like the first and second of those three self-titled long-players, Everything Will Be Alright in the End was produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, a move that also signals a return to old ground.

“It was probably a year ago,” once Cuomo had written and demoed most of the material on his own, he explains, “that we had made a long list of producers and Ric wasn’t even on the list. For some reason, we hadn’t even thought of him. We were looking at a lot of newer, hotter producers, and nothing felt quite right. When we asked ‘What do we really want this to sound like, ideally?,’ we described the sound to ourselves as ‘Kinda like The Blue Album and kinda like The Green Album.’ And then we thought ‘Well, wait a minute, why we don’t we just get that guy!’ He still has the effect on us that when he walks in the room it’s like ‘We’re making a record, guys. We’re not messing around.’ On the first album, growing up having been in different bands and feeling like your demo tape gets screwed up by the engineer who doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do or is trying to make you sound like what’s happened before, we were very guarded. But his charisma counteracted our defensiveness and helped us take in an outside opinion.”

Again, Cuomo presented highly developed demos to Ocasek, but the crunching, downtempo groove of “Back to the Shack” recalls vintage Weezer in spirit as much as in structure. Much like a sports car is physically designed for optimal aerodynamic, curve-hugging performance, “Shack” sounds precisely sculpted for airplay. If you happen to hear the song in a crowded bar, for example, where the volume of the music isn’t quite loud enough to overwhelm all the other ambient noise in the room, the band’s sound is immediately recognizable in the distinct grain of the guitar distortion and in the song’s overall melodic structure, both of which have a flavor that feels almost chemically composed to fit such an environment. Alongside other quintessentially ‘90s heavy rock staples like, say, the Stone Temple Pilots hit “Vasoline”—also from the same year as Weezer’s debut—“Back to the Shack” falls right into place. Likewise, the honey-sweet harmonies on “Lonely Girl” recall the chorus of “Buddy Holly,” also off the first album and one of the band’s biggest, most ubiquitous hits.

In these echoes of the past, there is a palpable yearning for innocence, for the unbridled enthusiasm for rock music that has such a heady, euphoric glow about it when you’re in your teens and early 20s. One can only presume that selling millions of records and having your songs played in every mall in America—not to mention aging and embracing family life, as Cuomo has—does a great deal to diminish that enthusiasm. Someone in Cuomo’s position (indeed, anyone who simply gets older) has to work to keep their love of music vital, and to prevent their nostalgia from rejecting current music as not good enough. On “Back to the Shack,” Cuomo sounds almost desperate for the time before he was playing guitar and writing songs in the glare of mass recognition.

This is a songwriter, we must remember, whose debut sold five million units in the U.S. After the relative “failure” of sophomore album Pinkerton, which initially went gold—an impressive sales marker by any other measure except for the fact that the The Blue Album had already sold 10 times that much—Cuomo responded by retreating from the public eye for five years. As a youth, the garage represented a sanctuary from emotional violence and from his own acute awkwardness. Now, the “shack” is a place Cuomo must imagine to seek shelter from external noise in order to do what he does, which is write songs. But he also has to go to that place from the perspective of having found longtime inner harmony via meditation, domestic peace, well-documented peace with his bandmates, and—as he references in the opening line of “Back to the Shack,” peace with an audience towards whom he has openly expressed ambivalence in the past.

So how does a happilly married person write angsty relationship songs?

“Relationships with women,” Cuomo offers, “is the number-one most classic subject for a band to write about. It’s so natural and effortless and timeless. People are always gonna relate to it. Sometimes I even try to avoid that topic, but at the end of the day you just have to go with the best songs, and so many of them seem to be about women still. But like the new song ‘Ain’t Got Nobody,’ you can say ‘Well how can you possibly sing that with any sincerity? You’ve been married for years now and you appear so happy.’ All I can say is that, for me—and probably for anyone—you’re going to have a bad day. On that day, you might feel totally alone, like no one understands you and no one’s there for you. That’s when you happen to pick up the guitar and write a song. It doesn’t represent the totality of me and my life, but that’s how I felt in that moment.”

Clearly, as “Shack” and several other tunes on the new album demonstrate, Cuomo has always remained capable of tapping into his essence as a songwriter, of going to the well and coming back with memorable, almost innately catchy songs. But to focus exclusively on the radio-friendly portion of his body of work is also unfair. Since those first two albums, Weezer has more or less alternated between safe, straight-ahead records followed by riskier, more challenging ones. When the band re-emerged after disappearing in the wake of Pinkerton, it did so with the overtly commercial Green Album, which in turn was succeeded by the jagged, almost prig-leaning Maladroit, etc, etc. At times, Cuomo has gone way out on a limb, such as when he mashed rap with a Gregorian chant on The Red Album. In several obvious ways, Everything Will Be Alright touches on familiar elements from throughout the band’s career.

But the album also accomplishes much more than that. This time around, Cuomo manages to revisit Weezer’s legacy while taking chances and introducing new flavors at the same time, arguably marking the first time he’s broken away from his zigzagging trajectory. Both sensations—the new and the familiar—are enhanced by the way the songs are grouped together by theme into three roughly equal sections, an arrangement that gives the listening experience a kind of narrative arc that previous albums have largely lacked.

“That was all unconscious,” Cuomo says. “I remember reading Stephen King’s memoir around the time I started writing these songs in 2010. He said he doesn’t think about theme at all as he’s writing. It’s all unconscious. But when he goes back and re-reads what he’s written, then he realizes, ‘Oh, I see: these are the themes.’ And he may go back and make a few revisions to enhance that. But it’s not like he set out to write a book about a certain theme. And that was the case with this album too. It was only when I was pretty much done that we realized there are three main themes here. If you’re hearing slightly different themes than I am, I can’t say that you’re wrong and I’m right.”

“But I noticed,” he continues, “that there are definitely a handful of songs about the way our music is received by our audience. There are also a handful of songs about relationships with women, and then I saw the third category as being about father figures—and I mean that pretty loosely. There’s ‘Foolish Father,’ which could be me singing about my father or me singing about being a father in relation to my daughter. There’s ‘Eulogy for a Rock Band,’ which is Weezer singing about its musical forefathers. There’s ‘The British Are Coming,’ which is about our country in relation to its imperial father, the British empire. That’s kind of an analogy for what was going on in my life, but these songs together are just different ways of looking at father figures.”

Parenthood, in fact, informed the album’s title. In a brief intro sequence that precedes opening number “Ain’t Got Nobody,” a child awakens from a nightmare only to be reassured by her mother that everything will be alright in the end—a phrase parents routinely employ in order to instill a peace of mind that, in truth, can never actually be guaranteed. In a sense, it’s always a lie when parents say it, especially since, like the mother who introduces this album, they’re usually just saying it so they can get back to sleep.

Cuomo acknowledges the vague tone of foreboding in this choice of words, which are answered when the music kicks in by a cheerful-sounding doo wop-styled opening that tips its hat to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” And right there, in these first few seconds, lies a clear hint of what Cuomo has been able to do when he’s at his most probing: convert doubt, anxiety and other troubling sensations into rock anthems.

“I once told a friend the title of the album,” Cuomo says. “He said, ‘Wow, that sounds really optimistic.’ But once you hear the music and you see the artwork, you really have to question the optimism in those words. Even those last three words, ‘in the end,’ any sensitive person would react to that with a little bit of worry.”

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