I didn’t know my cousins from Cleveland all that well, so it was startling to see the two of them out in the street in front of my other cousins’ house, climbing up each other’s backs, shouting with loopy abandon, “If you want to destroy my sweater/ Hold this thread as I walk away!/ Watch me unravel, I’ll soon be naked!/ Lying on the floor, I’ve come undone!” It was summer 1994, around the time of my eleventh birthday. I hadn’t yet crossed the threshold from sheltered church kid to faithful MTV viewer, but that world held immeasurable allure for me. I was entranced by the idea of rock ‘n’ roll without actually having experienced much of it yet. I don’t think I even knew who the recently deceased Kurt Cobain was at that point; that came the following school year when kids in my fifth-grade class started wearing T-shirts with Cobain’s face plastered across the front. I was the kind of child who stayed inside to invent my own X-Men while other kids were out playing basketball — so uncool that I could only imagine what cool might be. In other words, I had a lot in common with Rivers Cuomo.
Weezer’s first self-titled album — henceforth referred to rightly and properly as the Blue Album — hit stores 20 years ago tomorrow, and people are still climbing up each other’s backs singing along to this day. The album was a hit from the beginning, but a few years later, in that dark period after Pinkerton when it seemed like the band might never come back, it became a religion. Weezer worship runs especially deep among suburban kids like the members of Real Estate, who got their start playing the Blue Album straight through at high school parties. As a fellow suburban native, I know two separate groups of high school friends who have assembled well into their twenties to bash the album out in full. One of the two bands has made a regular thing out of it. The Blue Album just inspires that level of devotion — a sacred text that people feel compelled to revisit it in its entirety. They pump their fists and drunkenly howl “The workers are going home!” and pour their hearts into every subsequent lyric and air guitar break until all they can do during “Only In Dreams” is gently sway with arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. For a vast cross-section of dorks, bros, basics, and aspiring manic pixie dream girls, it is their blue heaven.
In keeping with the geeky identity that has always defined them, Weezer was out of step with popular rock trends when they landed on MTV and modern rock radio. Grunge was peaking and punk was breaking, which meant the default posture involved a dour disposition or at least heavy doses of snark. In that environment, Weezer’s major keys and doe-eyed story-songs stood out. Nobody else was hearkening back to Happy Days. Throughout Blue, Cuomo still comes off as the starry-eyed Connecticut kid who moved to L.A. after high school in search of rock stardom. He would get around to fixating on heartbreak one album later on 1996’s Pinkerton, a harrowing breakup opus that did as much as Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary (incidentally, released on the same day as the Blue Album) to shape the face of emo. But much of Blue’s appeal was its romantic outlook on life, so much so that when they released Pinkerton two years later many fans didn’t know what to make of it.
Most people prefer music that makes them feel good, which is why the Blue Album (and, unfortunately, latter-day dreck like “Beverly Hills”) struck a mainstream chord the way Pinkerton never could. Aside from the devastating “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” and the stirring dysfunction junction “Say It Ain’t So,” the first Weezer album comprises not sob stories but optimistic fantasies. It is a dweeb’s idea of what cool sounds like — rocking out like Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, riding a surfboard to work, sweeping a lovely lady away to a strange and distant land, monopolizing that lady’s attention — imagined from the safety of the garage, the scariness of the outside world given only passing acknowledgement. More than any other figure in his generation, Cuomo helped popularize the concept of the cool geek, the idea that rock stars didn’t have to dabble in satanism and shag groupies like Jimmy Page but could obsess over Dungeons & Dragons and unattainable crushes instead. Even before he donned those iconic glasses (note their absence on the album cover), he was Clark Kent.
Epic closer “Only In Dreams,” with its hyper-specific imagery about toenails, makes the album’s headspace explicit, but there’s never any doubt we’re visiting a paralyzingly awkward introvert’s imaginary world. Even “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” a gorgeous stomach punch of relatable heartbreak, is Cuomo’s jerkoff fantasy about making love to his ex and hearing what a wonderful lover he is. Therein lies the Blue Album’s pathetic dark side: All the critiques lobbed at “Undone”/”Buddy Holly” video director Spike Jonze’s Her this past year — the ones about how gross it is that the average heterosexual male fantasizes about finding a woman/women who will afford him unquestioning praise and control — could just as easily be applied to this music. Occasionally, they have been; Sady Doyle expertly outlined Weezer’s arrested-development creeper component in her epic Awl essay “Rivers Cuomo Messes You Up Forever.” A relevant excerpt:
…at some point you realize that “In the Garage” actually prefigured every awful Apatovian man-child film you have ever hated the sauce out of, and at some point you remember that “No One Else” exists, and you listen to the lyrics to that one for the first time in over a decade, and oh my God it is AWFUL. It is worse than ANYTHING on “Pinkerton.” I want a girl who will laugh for no one else, when I’m away she puts her makeup on the shelf, when I’m away she never leaves the house: I mean, that’s not some deep hidden misogyny you uncovered because you’re so paranoid/clever. Those are just the words. It’s like a musical installment of Twilight. If a friend were dating a dude who talked like this, you’d start leaving checklists of Signs That You Are In An Abusive Relationship all over her apartment. Which is where you would have to be, because that would be the only way you could see her, because when he was away she would never! Leave! The house!!!
The crippling possessiveness of “No One Else” can be read as tongue-in-cheek, of course — Cuomo’s knowing commentary on his own neuroses — or it can be taken as a humanizing factor, or just one of those complex moral areas listeners have to figure out how to deal with. Whatever is going on in that song, people will always come back to it along with the rest of Blue because the whole thing is an absolute triumph of pop songcraft. Some critics pegged Weezer as a Pavement ripoff thanks to their mutual mastery of melody and shared fondness for laying the power chords on thick. That’s a reasonable comparison, particularly since “Undone — The Sweater Song,” the Blue Album’s apparently absurdist lead single, could pass for a surf-waxed Slanted And Enchanted outtake. (Just think what might have become of “Cut Your Hair” had Jonze gotten his hands on it!) But Cuomo became a much bigger star than Stephen Malkmus partially because he taking his cues from much bigger rock stars than Malkmus. Cars frontman Ric Ocasek famously produced the Blue Album, and his power pop expertise proved to be just what Weezer needed. The band practiced harmonizing by rehearsing barbershop quartet music, and the resulting pinpoint interplay between Cuomo and bassist Matt Sharp evoked Brian Wilson’s masterful suites even when they weren’t singing about surfing or exotic locales.
Most crucially, even if Cuomo hadn’t paid direct tribute to KISS on “In The Garage,” the riffs on this record would have done the job. Weezer hadn’t started playing flying-V’s yet, but they were already churning out Hall Of Fame guitar parts prodigiously. “Say It Ain’t So” is the one endorsed by the Guitar Hero franchise, its canny chord progression and righteous squall destined to be forever tapped out on fake plastic instruments by pimply Cuomo types worldwide. The concisely ripping solo on the “Buddy Holly” bridge was no joke, nor were the groovy arpeggios of “Surf Wax America.” From the acoustic finger-plucking that opens “My Name Is Jonas” to the “Free Bird” heroics of “Only In Dreams,” these guys wrote riffs that would keep middle schoolers hacking away in basements for all eternity.
Weezer has spent the ensuing 20 years trying to recreate this majesty. On Pinkerton, their failure to do so yielded something arguably even more thrilling. On every album after that, their failure mostly just felt like failure. (Maladroit had some jams, though.) We can argue that Sharp took the mojo with him when he departed to focus on the Rentals full-time, or that after the initial Pinkerton backlash Cuomo’s songwriting became too cloyingly self-aware, or that this sort of permanent adolescence doesn’t look so good on grown men, or that no aging rock stars can recapture the magic of when they actually were just a bunch of geeks in a garage. But why argue at all when we can shout along and play air guitar and climb up each other’s backs?