When we last left our run through Weezer’s song history, the 2002 album Maladroit – essentially a “best of” collection of the previous year’s worth of recording and releasing new songs online – had failed to set the world on fire, despite a Muppets-themed video for one of its singles. Now read on to find out what happened over the next three years…
1. Mo’ Beats. 2. Private Message. 3. Misstep. 4. Booby Trap. 5. Modern Dukes. 6. Untenable. 7. Fontana. 8. She Who Is Miltant. 9. Prodigy Lover. 10. Mansion of Cardboard. 11. Queen of Earth. 12. Hey Domingo. 13. The Organ Player. 14. Sacrifice. 15. Mad Kow. 16. Running Man. 17. 367. 18. The Victor. 19. Acapulco. 20. Lullaby.
Recorded March-July 2002 by Cuomo, Bell, Shriner, Wilson, Shmedly.
Okay, a bit of housekeeping up top: the twenty tracks above aren’t every song recorded during this period; however, they’re all the ones that were released in some form or another via Weezer’s official website, discounting a couple of Brian Bell and Patrick Wilson tracks that ultimately ended up being reworked/re-recorded for their own side projects (and which, therefore, I’m not counting for the purposes of this series). I’ve arranged them into a tracklisting that I think makes a pretty solid (if quite long) album, but this is personal preference; as are my selections of which recording sessions to choose the tracks from, as some songs vary significantly across the sessions. If you want to see exactly which takes I chose so that you can construct the same album yourself, see the appendix at the end of this post.
So, while Maladroit was being prepared for its May 2002 release, the band were following a similar pattern to the one they’d done in the wake of recording The Green Album – that is, getting straight on with writing and recording new material before the record they’d just made had even hit shops. This time around, it was exacerbated by Maladroit‘s delayed release – to the extent that by the time that album made it out, there were already significant numbers of new songs out in the wild, courtesy of a sustained process of releasing new recordings at weezer.com.
But despite the short gap between sessions, the recordings for a planned fifth album moved in a significantly different direction – certainly, showing far more of a stylistic shift than had been apparent between the third and fourth. What resulted from those three stints in the studio in the spring and summer of 2002 was a set of tracks that – if pared down, worked on further and given a proper production and mastering – could have been comfortably the best album the band had released since Pinkerton.
Because make no mistake: in the summer of 2002, Rivers Cuomo was on fire. All of a sudden, he decided to experiment more liberally with the band’s sound – I mean, we’re not talking Radiohead here, but the introduction of pianos and keyboards, along with a much greater variation in tempo, meant that unlike in the pre-Maladroit days, you genuinely couldn’t predict what the next song out of the traps would sound like.
That’s not to say, however, that the Album 5 tracks don’t sound pretty quintessentially Weezer at times. Take “Mo’ Beats”, for example – a natural choice for a leadoff track on this album-that-never-was, it’s a crunchy, raucous track that feels like the next link in the “Hash Pipe”/”Dope Nose” chain. Prefiguring some of Rivers’ later material, the lyrics also feature him directly commenting on his own songwriting, with an opening couplet – “I got more beats than y’all / Keep Fishin’ still seems small” – that feels like a direct statement of intent.
There are a couple of other tracks that could have been pretty strong candidates for straight-down-the-line, typically catchy Weezer singles, too. “Modern Dukes” was a revamping of a Summer Songs 2000 track that had so many attempted revivals it’s genuinely surprising that it never actually made it onto an album, and its terrifically catchy chorus is a great loss to the Weezer canon. “Private Message”, meanwhile, was a newer song – released online very early in the Album 5 process (its first version came from the April, pre-Maladroit sessions), it was immediately popular with fans, and saw Rivers directly sharing personal experiences in a way that he’d rarely done since the band’s comeback. Purportedly, he’d entered into a relationship with someone online (who may or may not have been a fan on the band’s forums), and the lyrics reflect the difficulty of trying to woo someone over the internet, at a time when such a thing was a shade more unusual than it is nowadays.
There were several distinct versions of “Private Message” released from the 2002 sessions (and an acoustic version was later recorded during the 2003 demo run), but for my money the original April 2002 version (prior to the introduction of a piano line that was later dropped again) is the strongest, and with just a little polish could happily have been a pretty great single.1
Those seemingly-personal lyrics, however, actually set “Private Message” (and to an extent, “Mo’ Beats”) apart from much of the rest of the Album 5 output. For the most part, these new songs actually eschewed personal songwriting altogether – and in some cases, actually moved into outright storytelling. What was particularly unusual was hearing Rivers sing in the third person for the first time, something that happens on several tracks including “The Organ Player” and the excellent “Mansion of Cardboard”. This latter track was a reworking (with completely different lyrics) of a never-released song from around 2001 called “So Low”, and is a slight but striking character piece about a homeless vagrant.
“Mansion…” is also one of the strongest examples of the piano lines that were added to several songs during the late June/early July session days – played (for the most part, if not entirely) by a pianist named “Shmedly”, it also appears on tracks like “367”, “The Victor”, “Fontana” and “The Running Man”.
Aside from “Acapulco” – a reworking of the pre-Maladroit demo “Puerto Vallarta” that’s different enough for me to justify breaking my normal “no track twice” rule and include it here – and the slightly reggae-tempo “Hey Domingo”, perhaps the most unusual tracks in this batch are “Lullaby” and “Queen of Earth”. The former – not to be confused with the very early demo “Lullaby for Wayne” – does exactly what it says on the tin, singing in the first person to a mother having a sleepless night with a baby. It’s also one of the few examples in this era of a 3/4 time signature song.
“Queen of Earth”, meanwhile, is something else entirely. Barely anything about it sounds like a Weezer song: it’s in a minor key, is eerie and slow of tempo, has Rivers singing under a distant, echoey filter effect, and adds what I think are synthesized strings (but which would presumably have been replaced by actual strings on any album version). The lyrics are spare, but are enough to give the song a dark, foreboding sense.
It’s hard to know exactly where “Queen of Earth” would have fit on an album, even in this more unusual period – but it would have been a pretty unmissable track had it made it on.
It doesn’t take the title of true highlight of the Album 5 set, however. That honour goes to an updated Summer Songs 2000 track: “Mad Kow”.
Back in 2000, “Mad Kow” (and no, I’ve still no idea why it spells it that way) had pretty much the same lyrics and basic melody, but opened with a typical-of-the-era crunchy guitar intro. The March ’02 recording, however, replaces this with a gradually building, and slightly offbeat, drum lick that seems to alter the entire mood and tempo of the song. What was once a fairly straightforward chug takes on an epic, gradually-building quality. Coupled with one of Rivers’ best vocal performances of the era (he’s in full-on yearn mode), it’s a fantastic listen, and for me comfortably outstrips later recordings that would shift it slightly back towards its Summer 2000 style.
There are certainly things that don’t quite hit during the “EA5” era – but even when they fail, the songs are at least an attempt to branch out into something new, and despite some occasionally shonky lyrics they’re never anything less than listenable. With some proper focus and tightening up, the band could quite easily have put out a strong 10-12 track album that may not have matched their 1990s output, but would have pushed them into an exciting new direction for the 2000s.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Not a single one of the tracks discussed above would ever make it on to a Weezer album. Only “Private Message” and “Prodigy Lover”, which were demoed again in 2003, and “Yellow Camaro” – a Brian song that eventually ended up on the first and only Space Twins album – even survived beyond the end of 2002. While Songs From The Black Hole is generally thought of as the great “lost” Weezer album, at least four of its songs did actually make it to Pinkerton – and the remaining surviving recordings have been officially released via the Alone rarity albums. But after their initial online releases, the 2002 demos seem to have been almost entirely shunned by the band – they’re never played live, and they’ve never been included on any subsequent official releases. And that, to me, is a great shame.
1. I Was Scared. 2. I Can Love. 3. It’s Easy. 4. The Story of My Life. 5. Everybody Wants a Chance to Feel All Alone. 6. The Rat Race.
Recorded September-November 2003 by Cuomo, Bell, Shriner, Wilson.
In July 2002, following the last of the “EA5” sessions, Weezer embarked on a two-month tour known as the Enlightenment Tour. When they returned, demo sessions for the fifth album began in earnest – but this time, they were very different. Arriving at S.I.R. studios in September 2002, the band spent the next eight months recording a large range of tracks – but unlike the first half of the year, this time they kept everything under lock and key. The volume of tracks released online didn’t just decrease: it dried up entirely.
The reasons for this are unclear – perhaps the band were still unhappy with what had happened over Maladroit, although that hadn’t stopped them releasing tracks from the earlier sessions in July. Whatever the reasoning, though, the S.I.R. sessions – although they contained some songs that would be carried forwards – have never been released in any form.
In June 2003, the band began to rent an office space in Los Angeles, and it was here that the next set of sessions began, running from September through to November. Labelled the “Acoustic Office Demos”, presumably due to the fact that they were acoustic demos recorded in an office, these were initially similarly unavailable to fans: only “Everybody Wants a Chance to Feel All Alone” had made it out via a weezer.com link in 2003. Even then, the version that was released had actually been recorded earlier, during a November 2002 S.I.R.-based rehearsal: but due to the style of the recording, it’s still considered an “office demo”.
While tracks like “Yahoo”, “Cold Glass of Water”, “Emotions Let You Down” and “Kings of Money” (a reworking of EA5 demo “Prodigy Lover”) have never seen the light of day, five more of the Office demos did eventually make it out into the wild, released variously on Rivers’ Alone compilations, and as bonus tracks on The Red Album and Raditude. So what are they like?
Well, they’re slight, really. Unsurprisingly, given their acoustic form, the Rivers tracks in particular have a mournful sound – “The Story of My Life” is stronger than “Everybody Wants…”, but they’re both fairly decent laments. “I Was Scared” (actually an electric demo recorded entirely by Rivers) and “I Can Love” are punchier, but also verge slightly on the whinier side; though the former is a quite personal lyric, referring to a childhood incident of Rivers’ brother Leaves being bullied.
Wait, hang on… “the Rivers tracks”? Yep, that’s probably the most distinguishing feature of these sessions: the fact that Brian Bell gets to write and sing two of the tracks that we’ve had released. It wasn’t the first time Rivers had let one of the other band members take the lead – “Yellow Camaro” and some unreleased Pat-led tracks had made it into the Album 5 demos – but “Rat Race” and “It’s Easy” are probably the closest that a non-Rivers vocal had made it to an album at that point. “It’s Easy”, in particular, is a pleasant, incredibly Brian-ish track that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of his side project albums.
It’s not hard to see, however, how these tracks didn’t really fit with the direction Weezer would go in when they knuckled down to work on their fifth album proper in earnest; and they don’t really represent much other than a mild diversion.
1. Beverly Hills. 2. Perfect Situation. 3. This Is Such A Pity. 4. Hold Me. 5. Peace. 6. We Are All On Drugs. 7. The Damage in Your Heart. 8. Pardon Me. 9. My Best Friend. 10. The Other Way. 11. Freak Me Out. 12. Haunt You Every Day.
Recorded December 2003-February 2005 by Cuomo, Bell, Shriner, Wilson. Produced by Rick Rubin. Released May 2005.
So, then, Make Believe. Weezer’s second-best-selling album, shifting only around half the worldwide units of The Blue Album, but slightly more than The Green Album (and, as part of that trio, comfortably ahead of everything else by a couple of million). To a certain generation of music listeners, it’s also probably the best-known of their records. So why do I get such a sinking feeling in my heart when it comes to discussing it?
Writing from 2015, it’s certainly not their worst album – although in 2005, it was easily the weakest they’d yet released. But in so many ways, it feels like a conscious rejection of everything they’d done before, and of everything they were ever trying to do, even as late as the interesting and experimental 2002 demos. I don’t know what changed in Rivers’ mind that caused the shift in style, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would suggest that the incredible success of a certain Green Day album from a year previous might have been in the mix. Because there’s no denying that Make Believe is a shameless grab at wider commercial success, right down to the hiring of Rick Rubin as producer. And it’s one that actually, for a while, succeeded.
That it did this with “Beverly Hills” as a leadoff single is easily the worst thing about it. The first anyone heard of this song was a short snippet recorded on someone’s mobile phone (in the days before smartphones, it was achieved by the clever fan recording the clip as their voicemail greeting) during the video shoot. As the first new Weezer material to make it out in a couple of years, both this and a subsequent “official” 30-second snippet were eagerly anticipated; but also less than eagerly received, with few of the existing hardcore impressed by its unimaginative, juddering riff, talk-box guitar solo and irritating “Gimme gimme!” backing vocals. Of course, that was before any of us had even seen the video.
Performing at the Playboy mansion, surrounded by Hugh Hefner and a bevvy of scantily-clad girls, while singing about how great it would be to live in Beverly Hills “rollin’ like a ce-le-bri-ty”? What fresh hell was this? What had happened to our lovable group of awkward nerds? Was this meant to be ironic? It certainly didn’t feel like it: it felt cynical and nasty. Hadn’t Weezer always been the champions of outsider, underdog spirit? Why was Rivers, in the voice of this stargazing-wannabe character, suddenly telling us that “It’s something that you’re born into, and I just don’t belong”?
Terrifyingly, though, “Beverly Hills” was a hit. Rivers’ regression into sneery adolescence, abandoning all pretence that he was interested in writing thoughtful and engaging songs, was also the band’s most successful song since “Buddy Holly” – arguably even outstripping it in terms of popularity, and cracking the charts in both the U.K. and U.S. This was the new Weezer – a group of mid-thirties blokes getting down with “the kids” and singing about how unfair everything is, mom – and they had a new audience that loved them for it.
And then the second single, “We Are All On Drugs”, was basically The Diarrhoea Song.
Seriously. I have nothing else to say about it.
With this double dose of hack, unimaginative and downright unpleasant material loaded up top, it’s fair to say that for many long-time listeners, Make Believe was on a hiding to nothing from the start. But what makes the album frustrating is that while much of it seems to see Rivers in as can’t-be-arsed a mode as possible, there are flashes of something better. Nowhere is this more evident than in the record’s third single, “Perfect Situation”. It might sound to some like a fairly straightforward retread of The Green Album‘s “Simple Pages”, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s at least got some actual heart and emotion behind it, and some imagination in the melody (although a later retooling for the single release, which chopped the intro short, altered the chorus melody and added in some annoying Brian-and-Scott backing vocals to the end because Geffen felt the song’s title wasn’t mentioned enough, weakens rather than strengthens it).
(Also, while the video’s cheesy as all hell, it’s got a guest appearance by longtime roadie/webmaster/”fifth Weezer” Karl Koch as the merch guy, so it’s worth it for that alone.)
When the album dares to go a little bit more unusual – showing perhaps the last lingering influence of the EA5 era – is when it’s at its best. “The Damage in Your Heart” is pretty straightforward lyrically but has an offbeat, slightly darker melody; while “Freak Me Out” opens with a guitar sound that feels like it comes straight from the Rubin playbook, but turns out to be a bizarre yet engaging song about being scared of a spider (seriously, it’s literally about being afraid of a spider). And “This is Such a Pity” is a pretty terrific slice of – unusually – synth-pop that really deserved to be a single far more than “Beverly Hills” or “Drugs” did.2
Beyond those highlights, though, there’s too much that simply struggles to rise above mediocre. “The Other Way” is potentially fascinating – the only truly personal track on the album, it shows Rivers working out his conflicted feelings about wanting to comfort his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Chiba following the death of Elliott Smith – but otherwise simply turgid; “Pardon Me” and “Hold Me” are almost completely forgettable; while “My Best Friend”, later offered to but not used on Shrek 2 soundtrack, contains one of Rivers’ worst ever vocal performances. “Peace” has a nice main riff but little else.
That just leaves “Haunt You Every Day”, a reasonably popular track among many fans as a powerful, emotional album closer. Personally, it doesn’t really do it for me, but with its piano-led melody, it’s the track on the album that sounds the most like it could have come straight from EA5. It’s just that if it had done, it still would have been one of the more middling efforts from that group.
For all that I don’t like about Make Believe, it’s still arguably a more solid base for Weezer to build off from than the previous two albums had been. The lengthy writing and production process, compared with the rate of knots at which they’d been working before and after Maladroit, helps with it feeling somewhat like a new “year zero” for the band, even moreso than The Green Album. There are enough hints of imagination dotted here and there to suggest that with their follow-up, the band could continue to experiment, and launch themselves to even greater success.
Well, they at least managed to do one of those two. But we’ll talk about which one next time.
1. I Don’t Want Your Loving. 2. Blowin’ My Stack. 3. Losing My Mind. 4. Turn Me Round. 5. I’m A Robot. 6. Outta Here. 7. Save Me / I Was Made For You.
Recorded November 2003 by Cuomo, Bell, Shriner, Wilson.
Finally, while there weren’t any B-sides released for Make Believe (once again, the two singles that actually made it to retail were simply backed by live tracks and remixes), there are a few relevant tracks that are worth discussing in connection to it. The so-called “Fallen Soldiers” had been discussed in fan circles around and after the album’s release, as Karl Koch had described them as the songs that had made it closest to inclusion on the record before ultimately being dropped; and they were known to exist in demo form that was reasonably close to final produced quality.
Six of them finally saw release on the Death to False Metal compilation in 2010, and they serve as a pretty apt microcosm of their parent album. Which is to say that they’re a mixture of reasonably interesting experimentation and irritating, lazy drudgery. “I Don’t Want Your Loving” is mildly catchy, if somewhat derivative, but has lyrics that are blunt and dull even by Make Believe‘s standards; while “Blowin’ My Stack” doesn’t even have catchiness going for it.
But “Losing My Mind” is a genuinely great track; perhaps a bit too similar in tone to “Freak Me Out” to have fit comfortably on Make Believe, but it could have happily have gone on there in place of it, and would have been one of the record’s best cuts if it had done. Crucially, it’s another of the few songs from this era on which Rivers actually sounds like he cares. It’s very similar thematically to the later “Can’t Stop Partying” – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because we’ll have plenty to say about that song when we reach the appropriate.
By contrast, “I’m A Robot” is genuinely appalling, for similar reasons to “Beverly Hills”. Put simply, there’s no justification whatsoever for a rich, successful rock star to write a song from the perspective of someone stuck in an everyday office job complaining about how terrible, boring and awful it is. It’s an unpleasant strand to his songwriting that would pop up a couple of times again in the coming years.
There’s one more track I’ve listed above, even though strictly speaking it shouldn’t count as a “Fallen Soldier”. “Save Me” is listed among the recording sessions of that era, although we’ve never heard a version of it. It’s heavily speculated, however, that it was a reworking of an earlier Rivers demo called “I Was Made For You”.
Recorded in Spring of 2004 and eventually released on 2007’s first Alone compilation, “I Was Made For You” is an astonishing track – a gorgeous, mournful-yet-uplifting love song that’s genuinely one of the best of the post-Pinkerton era, in this writer’s book. Despite being “only” a demo, it’s more listenable and instantly classic than almost all of the more slickly-produced efforts on Make Believe, and was far more worthy of becoming an actual Weezer album track.
Unfortunately, as we’ll learn next time, keeping their best songs off the album proper was starting to become a recurring habit.
Weezerology continues with Part Six, Seeing Red.
1Brian Bell, who gets some great backup vocal lines on that April version, was also something of a fan of the song; after it was ultimately dropped by Rivers, he sought permission to rework it into a song called “Hand to Hold” for his side-project The Relationship.
8th March 2002: Mad Kow
21st April 2002: Private Message
22nd April 2002: Prodigy Lover, The Victor
2nd July 2002: Mo’ Beats, Booby Trap, Modern Dukes, Fontana, Mansion of Cardboard, Queen of Earth, Hey Domingo, The Organ Player, Sacrifice, 367, Acapulco, Lullaby
16th July 2002: Untenable, She Who Is Militant, Running Man