Memes and Musicality: Defining Weezer’s Legacy

Alex Swhear takes a look at Weezer's legacy after the release of their latest LP, 'Pacific Daydream.'
By    November 9, 2017

daydream

Alex Swhear never wants to go back to Beverly Hills.

“I don’t wanna be an old man anymore” – Rivers Cuomo, twenty-one years ago

The Blue Album, Weezer’s landmark 1994 debut record, is an album best discovered in a locked bedroom after school during one’s formative years. Angsty, heartfelt, and funny, it’s a markedly potent musical gateway drug. It is also a quintessentially teenage piece of work, gleaming with naiveté and animated by the type of passion that can’t (and won’t) burn forever. While Rivers and co. maneuver confidently, the record’s best songs also drip with anxiety and unease, layered in irony and self-aware smirks. The winking novelty of “Buddy Holly” and the caustic glare of “Undone (The Sweater Song)” coexists comfortably with heartfelt love letters to music (“In the Garage”), surfing (“Surf Wax America”), and, of course, girls (“No One Else”).

Lightning struck twice with Pinkerton, their brilliant 1996 follow-up. While its initial reception tagged it as the predictably difficult (and ultimately inadequate) sophomore effort, Pinkerton’s virtues have been illuminated with the passage of time. Pinkerton avoided an easy replication of Blue while also mindfully tapping into what made it great. It was a stranger, more idiosyncratic twist on Blue’s thematic territory—more nakedly confessional, more acidic, sadder. Where their debut was wide-eyed, Pinkerton found the band dwelling in darker corners, stymied by disillusion with fame, sexual frustration, and isolation. It was complex and funny and heartbreaking, and it would be the last great thing Weezer ever released.

Weezer’s fall to earth was as predictable as it was unfortunate; countless artists have peaked early and flailed in subsequent attempts to recreate initial successes. The pattern wasn’t even unique within their era; the two-and-done model of creative output ensured that most people stopped listening to Oasis long before they stopped playing John Lennon dress-up. But it did ensure that, like so many other artists with revelatory debuts, the rest of their career would struggle in the shadow of early triumphs.

The latest Weezer record, Pacific Daydream, is their eleventh. There is a post-Pinkerton spectrum, ranging from flawed but respectable efforts (Everything Will Be Alright In the End and The White Album) to decisive failure (Make Believe and Raditude). When it comes to staking out territory on that spectrum, Pacific Daydream doesn’t even engage—it will fall wherever we are willing to place it, thank you very much.

You nearly forget it exists before it reaches its end. It’s perfectly content to simply be another Weezer album, aggressively inoffensive and disposable in every imaginable capacity. Confronted with the opportunity to make strides in the right direction like their last couple of records did, Pacific Daydream averts its gaze and slouches in its seat.

Twenty-three years into their career, it isn’t too early to begin evaluating Weezer’s legacy. We will lead with the good news: they released two iconic records in quick succession. The status of those records is solidified and represents an achievement few artists have duplicated. They also have longevity on their side, proving remarkably resilient as they reach their quarter-century mark as a band. Their output has been prolific and their popularity steady. They tour consistently, and they don’t rely on the easy nostalgia act gimmick eagerly embraced by so many of their peers.

The bad news is that Weezer long ago reached a point where their bad or middling material outweighed the good. Their output reached diminishing returns with the lightweight The Green Album, remained stagnant with Maladroit, and reached rock bottom with Make Believe. They have never fully recovered from that trio of disappointments, instead settling into a new normal where Weezer fans approach a new album hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

The truth is, that while their output has plateaued, Weezer never became bad enough to write off entirely. Last year’s The White Album wielded a handful of sparkling pop gems that proved Cuomo’s melodic sensibilities still had some kick. 2008’s The Red Album is too uneven to serve as a full-fledged revival, but it is home to some of their most purely fun songs in recent years (namely “Pork and Beans” and “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On a Shaker Hymn)”). Green and Maladroit may be mixed bags, but they collectively boast some of Weezer’s most notable singles (including “Hash Pipe”).

And yet the legacy question persists. What mark has Weezer left? What do we make of their discography? Do they get a pass because their two best records were such unqualified, undeniable successes? Or do we judge them by the numbers—a band that made two great records, a few mediocre-to-decent ones, and a considerable list of bad ones? Does one extreme swallow up the other? Are we distorting reality if we gloss over their failures? Or do we owe it to their successes to see them in a vacuum, rather than allow them to be diminished by “Where’s My Sex?” and “Can’t Stop Partying?”

It’s a slippery question to confront. Legends often get considerable leeway, with their peaks holding exponentially more weight than their flops. Even David Bowie made Never Let Me Down; even Bob Dylan made Self Portrait; even the Rolling Stones made everything the Rolling Stones made in the 1980s. Perhaps The Blue Album and Pinkerton, which spawned a generation of imitators and soundtracked many an awkward adolescence, deserve the same treatment. Their place in the 1990s cultural zeitgeist (and beyond) is unimpeachable, and their quality still holds up decades later.

To ignore the descent of Weezer’s output into the frustratingly minor, though, is to ignore the root of their appeal—and to miss the lessons to be learned by their often misguided creative direction. Early Weezer had a well-defined sound and direction—a singular one, even, in the context of the ‘90s grunge explosion—but their resonance ultimately stemmed from something more substantive.

Cuomo’s passions, struggles, humor, and doubts cloaked Weezer’s mostly straightforward pop music in a unique sense of identity. You can hear it in the earnest pleas of “Say It Ain’t So,” and in the catharsis of “Only In Dreams,” too. It’s certainly there in “Buddy Holly.” Weezer lost their way not because they churned out focus-grouped pop fluff like “Beverly Hills” (although they did do that). Weezer lost their way because their music lost its personality, and the interesting things that made Cuomo tick no longer mattered to him anymore. Their latest songs are devoid of tension, consequence, and, perhaps most importantly, joy.

To the very best Weezer music, that sense of joy is elemental, an inseparable piece of its DNA. And as White showed, they are not incapable of recapturing that. Pacific Daydream, though, mistakes agreeability for joy, content to coast on its own goodwill without lifting a finger to engage its audience. Who knows—maybe on next year’s already announced Black Album, Weezer will rediscover their purpose and release something vital. If not, there’s always “El Scorcho.”