Last time, Weezer had their most successful album since 1994 in the shape of Make Believe – but it was an album that split the existing fandom, and seemed to point towards a more mainstream pop-rock direction for the band. Read on to find out where they went next…
1. This Is The Way. 2. The Odd Couple. 3. Autopilot. 4. My Day Is Coming. 5. Turning Up The Radio.
Recorded 2007-8 by Cuomo, Bell, Wilson, Shriner.
A reasonable expectation would have been for Weezer to take the success of Make Believe – their second biggest-selling album worldwide, although US sales were slightly lower than for The Green Album – as the launchpad for a new, second era of their career. I made the comparison last time to Green Day’s American Idiot, and while Make Believe was nowhere near as successful as that, it certainly exposed Weezer to a much bigger new audience that they could have capitalised on with a follow-up album a year or so later.
But, this is Weezer we’re talking about. And so rather than go on to be a hugely successful stadium alt-rock band, they did exactly what they’d done when in danger of becoming successful a decade previously: they retreated. Rivers went back to Harvard to finish the degree he’d originally started post-Pinkerton, while Pat and Brian spent time working with their side projects The Special Goodness and The Relationship respectively.1 While 2006 brought a welcome band reunion photo at Rivers’ wedding (Matt Sharp and Jason Cropper were in attendance, with only the estranged Mikey Welsh missing), in every other respect for the next couple of years it seemed like Weezer were not an ongoing concern.
It wasn’t until April 2007 that we were given the first hints that there might ever again be something new on the horizon. A demo called “Pig” emerged on assorted musical blogs – including, briefly, on Weezer’s own news site – with metadata that revealed it was from something titled Deliverance at Hand! This ultimately turned out not to be the title of the next album, but the name for a CD collection of Rivers demos.
Like several of the other tracks on Deliverance, “Pig” would eventually get a proper studio release a bit further down the line – so we won’t cover it just now. But there are four tracks from the demo that didn’t make it any further, yet did get official releases of their 2007 recordings. The first, and the only one to be released before Weezer’s next album, was “This Is The Way”.
Apparently an attempt to do an R’n’B/hip-hop inspired track, it’s… well, it’s not very good, basically. It’s not helped by an utterly flat vocal performance in the demo, but it largely comes across as dreary and insipid.
“This is the Way” was the only “new” track on Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, the long-awaited and acclaimed demo collection released right at the end of 2007 – the remainder of the demos spanned the period from 1992 up until the early Make Believe sessions. But we would later get to hear “My Day Is Coming” on 2008’s Alone II, and “Autopilot” and “The Odd Couple” on the 2010 Death to False Metal rarities collection.
None of the three are especially interesting, however (although I’m quite amused by “My Day Is Coming”, Rivers’ first – but not last – attempt at a motivational song for the US national soccer team); and taken all together, they don’t particularly bode well for the album that would follow. Neither does “Turning Up The Radio”, the result of an ambitious (but ultimately slightly pointless) experiment by Rivers to co-write a song with an army of fans across Myspace and the wider internet.2
In fact, it’s actually “Pig” (which we’ll come to later) that offered the most hope that the next full-length album would be a bit more interesting; and, thankfully, it’s that track which is the most reflective of what we would hear when the record finally landed.
1. Troublemaker. 2. The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn). 3. Pork and Beans. 4. Heart Songs. 5. Everybody Get Dangerous. 6. Dreamin’. 7. Thought I Knew. 8. Cold Dark World. 9. Automatic. 10. The Angel and the One.
Recorded April-October 2007 by Cuomo, Bell, Wilson, Shriner. Produced by Rick Rubin, Jacknife Lee and Weezer. Released June 2008.
Although Make Believe had been Weezer’s most successful album since their first, there was a growing sense that they had moved slightly too far away from the style and tone that had made them appeal to their original fanbase in the first place. This might not have been as much of a concern if they had immediately capitalised on that album’s success and sustained a newer incoming fandom – but with the long gap between albums, wider interest in them had largely filtered away. As such, they made a concerted effort, not for the first time, to convince long-time fans that the new record would go back to their “classic” sound.
In retrospect, it seems laughable that they could ever have attempted to pitch The Red Album this way; for both good and bad, the album is very firmly its own thing, a more diverse and experimental record than anything they had released so far. But when it came to teasing the album’s first single in mid 2008,3 with a 30-second clip of “Pork and Beans” released on Amazon, the most notable (and, it seems, deliberately spotlighted) feature was a crunching guitar fill that seemed to intentionally evoke Blue Album feelings.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. “Pork and Beans” doesn’t sound anything like a Blue track, and to many listeners when the full single came out, that will have been disappointing. But taken entirely on its own merits, the single is actually… pretty great. Rivers filters his growing interest in modern pop and production through several layers of pastiche and irony, crafting for the first time the late 2000s Cuomo personality where you’re never quite sure exactly how much to take seriously, and beginning a growing trend for self-reflexive lyrics.
Most significantly, though, “Pork and Beans” is just a belting tune, with a supremely catchy chorus that serves as a timely reminder of Cuomo’s knack for melody. Helped by a great video (albeit one whose references to Youtube personalities of the mid-to-late noughties are already significantly dated) it did particularly well in the UK, where it stands as their most recent top 40 hit.
Moving into the album proper, and things get off to a similarly promising – if slightly compromised – start. It’s best to skim over the lyrics of “Troublemaker” entirely – they find Rivers in close to “Beverly Hills” mode, singing from the perspective of yet another lowly outsider; but irony or not, there’s little defending lines as woeful as “Marrying a by-atch, having seven ky-ads“. Nevertheless, as a tune it’s once again pretty rollocking, with a chorus that’s hard to shift.
It’s worth noting at this point that both “Pork and Beans” and “Troublemaker” were written late in the album’s process, at the insistence of Geffen Records, in one of those classic examples of “can you actually put a single on it, please?” thinking. The later sessions for these tracks were produced by Jacknife Lee, but despite their troubled genesis (and the snarky petulance that Rivers put into the lyrics as a result – note the “Timbaland knows the way to reach top of the charts” line in P&B) it’s hard to deny that they set a good, solid tone for the album.
And then we come on to “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived”, a track that’s probably the most divisive thing the band had done up to that point (and, indeed, still might be). It’s a track that defies any attempt at simple description, clocking in at just under six minutes and taking in at least ten different themes and cues in a wildly veering, portmanteau fashion.
If ever there was any lingering doubt over whether Rivers was inviting you to take him seriously (and if the album’s cover hadn’t dispelled it entirely), then it’s put to bed by the opening section of “Greatest Man”, which sees an entirely braggadocious Cuomo – essentially – slapping his dick on the table. “Soon I’ll be playing in your underwear”; “I’m the baddest of the bad, I’m the best that you’ve ever had, I’m the tops, I’m the king, all the girls get up when I sing”; “After the havoc that I’m gonna wreak, no more words will critics have to speak”. In isolation, the lyrics are ridiculous; but backed up by the supreme confidence in the production of each individual section, they somehow work.
Cuomo has himself broken down the “inspiration” for each individual block, designating them as: Rap, Slipknot, Jeff Buckley, Choral, Aerosmith, Nirvana, Andrews Sisters, Green Day, Spoken Word, Bach, Beethoven and, finally, Weezer. But aside from the deliberate comparison with Green Day (and, in particular, their “Jesus of Suburbia”) the exact influences aren’t as interesting as the question of whether or not the song actually hangs together. And, somehow, it does – the base melody throughout is strong enough to anchor it, and so even as it’s leaping around the place it just about manages to stay coherent.
I’m aware that there are some Weezer fans who utterly hate “Greatest Man”, but I think it’s legitimately fantastic. It’s utterly batshit and silly – but it knows it, and it’s the best expression yet of Rivers’ growing sense of madcap irony. Most importantly, though, it just sounds damned great, especially when it builds to an explosive conclusion.
With those three tracks up top, The Red Album seems in pretty good shape ten minutes or so in. It’s just a shame that immediately afterwards, it drops somewhat off a cliff. “Heart Songs” – a trawl through Rivers’ personal influences that somehow manages to not mention Kiss but does confuse Debbie Gibson as being the singer of “I Think We’re Alone Now” – has its fans, but I find it schmaltzy and dreary, at least up until the Nirvana breakdown that works quite well.
“Everybody Get Dangerous”, meanwhile, is a song that it’s hard to imagine anyone standing up for. In general, The Red Album steers clear of apparent attempts to appeal to a teenage audience in the way that parts of Make Believe had (and which would come back to haunt the band terribly on a future album) – but along with “Troublemaker”, this is one of them. It’s an intensely unlikeable song about nothing more than dicking about as a teenager, purportedly inspired by Eminem but in truth coming off like an even lower-rent Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Things do get a fair amount better with “Dreamin'”, another track with an extended breakdown but which otherwise goes along at a fair pelt; but from then onwards is where it really gets unusual, as something happens on a Weezer album that hadn’t been allowed to before. Lead vocals on the next three tracks are each taken by the other band members: Brian on “Thought I Knew”, Scott on “Cold Dark World”, and Pat on “Automatic”.
Brian and Pat’s songs were actually each written by them, for their respective side projects. Of the two, while “Automatic” is a bit nothingy, “Thought I Knew” is by far the better. It’s a very Brian-ish kind of song, and would have fit quite easily on his own albums4 – you can see a progression to it from previous tracks that didn’t quite make the cut like “It’s Easy” and even “Yellow Camaro”.
It doesn’t go quite so well for Scott on “Cold Dark World”, however; you half wonder if Cuomo (who did also record an unused vocal take for it) gave the song to him just because he was too embarrassed to sing the godawful lyrics about rescuing a prostitute himself. In fact, Shriner had written the basic melody as a bass warmup exercise, with Cuomo putting lyrics over the top; which might explain why the latter’s heart wasn’t really in it. Either way, the bassist doesn’t come off very well when having to spit out lines like “I can console you and give you a kiss / Tell you that you can do better than this”. Throw in an “If you need love then I’ll be there to sex you” and you’ve got a pretty strong contender for the worst lyrics the band would ever put out.
Fortunately the album ends on a slightly better note, with “The Angel and the One”. It’s not the best closer the band would ever come up with, but steadily builds to a suitably powerful, organ-driven end. Also notable is the rhyming scheme of the lyrics, with every line rhyming (or, at least, half-rhyming) with every other. It’s a shame they’re ultimately a little meaningless, but you can’t have everything.
And so ends The Red Album – a maddeningly inconsistent curio of a record, with some genuinely brilliant highlights, but some equally baffling lows. Time has been kinder to its reputation, given what immediately followed: upon release, reception was largely mixed, but the better tracks tend to be well remembered now. What’s frustrating, however, is that the band had at least two or three other songs in the locker that, if they’d replaced some of the dross with them, could have made this an album worthy of standing alongside the first two. Instead, we had to get them only as bonus tracks on certain versions of the release…
1. Miss Sweeney. 2. Pig. 3. The Spider. 4. King.
Recorded April-October 2007 by Cuomo, Bell, Wilson, Shriner.
The various deluxe and international editions of The Red Album featured anything up to nine bonus tracks – but of these, three were cover versions (and so not in our remit), and two (specifically, on iTunes) were the earlier demos “It’s Easy” and “I Can Love”.5 Four tracks, however, date from the same recording and production sessions as the album proper. And two of them are among the very best things Weezer had recorded up to that point, making their absence from the album irritating and baffling.
I’ll deal with the four tracks in the reverse order that they appear, as that’s also the ascending order of my levels of interest. “King” is another Scott Shriner-sung song – and has a similar level of ham-fisted dude-ishness to “Cold Dark World”, but is still markedly better (as if it could really be any worse). “The Spider”, meanwhile, is a slightly bizarre and dreamlike creation, featuring just Cuomo on guitar and Brian Bell on synth, calling to mind Make Believe‘s “Freak Me Out”. Perfectly listenable, not especially staggeringly brilliant but it certainly sits above Red‘s weaker half.
“Pig”, as mentioned earlier, had first leaked in an acoustic form in 2007, but here is given the full band treatment. It’s one of the weirdest songs Rivers has ever written, but tonally would actually have fit pretty well on the album proper too.
You could be forgiven for taking it as some kind of metaphor, but no: it really is sung directly from the perspective of a pig, recounting his life story before being slaughtered by a farmer towards whom he holds no malice. The studio version of the track even adds a thunderous snare drum crack to its closing moments, to signify the pig’s death. It’s crazy. But it’s also kind of completely brilliant.
Not as brilliant, however, as “Miss Sweeney”. To this day, I remain actively angry that this song was “only” a bonus track, rather than standing alongside “Greatest Man” as the centrepiece of The Red Album. It starts with a slow build, a single note and a barely-decipherable intercom voice. Then the guitar and drums come in, on an off-kilter time signature – but not as off-kilter as Cuomo’s vocals, which take on a bizarre, half-sung, half-spoken tone (he called it “Southern Rap” in interviews, but I’m still not sure what he meant by that).
Calling to mind some of the Early Album 5 demos, it’s a character-based song: Rivers is singing (lyrics co-written by the band’s assistant, Sarah Kim) from the perspective of an unnamed businessman, addressing his secretary, the titular Miss Sweeney. In the verses, he’s delivering rote instructions for the day’s businees – before launching into the sung choruses in which, unable to contain himself any longer, he declares his undying love for the woman.
The second verse, in particular, has great fun with the conceit, and allows the chorus to burst out in a similar fashion to the man’s feelings:
I’m so sorry Miss Sweeney, I don’t know where that came from.
I think I was overcome by spontaneous emotion.
Anyway, the cash deposit of five thousand dollars’ll need to be sent to the property owner tomorrow.
If there are any problems with the deposit or contract don’t be afraid to holler.
I don’t want to have to approve each stinking dollar that we borrow…
Oh, forget it, MISS SWEENEY…
After the second verse and chorus, things build to an even more ecstatic conclusion, with close-harmony backing vocals that call to mind “Susanne”, an explosion of organ, and occasional drop-outs that emphasise the vocals. It’s just magical, and basically everything I could have wanted from a modern Weezer track.
Indeed, until 2013 (and even arguably after then – depends what mood I’m in) I would comfortably call “Miss Sweeney” the single best track the band had released since Pinkerton. And if Rivers’ inability to realise what his best material was and actually put it on the albums was infuriating, it was at least good to know that he was capable of still writing and recording something so good. For all of its problems, The Red Album doesn’t want for creativity – and if in its immediate aftermath you’d told me that the band would go on to put out two more albums in the next two years, I’d have looked forward to both of them immensely.
But of course… I hadn’t heard them then.
Weezerology will continue with Part Seven, Baditude.
1 Brian’s previous band, The Space Twins, had quietly disappeared after releasing their only album – the patchy but occasionally excellent The End of Imagining – a couple of years before Make Believe.
3 Almost a year, unusually, after sessions for the album had begun with Rick Rubin. While it seemed like Weezer were inert for much of 2007, the majority of what would become The Red Album was actually recorded then, just away from the eyes of the internet.
5 Already covered in section 17, the 2003 Office Demos.