In 2003, a still-hyphenated and still-vital Jay-Z released his “farewell” opus, The Black Album. One of the biggest albums in history, Metallica’s self-titled 1991 blockbuster, was already known as “The Black Album,” so anyone seeking to challenge their monopoly on that particular intellectual property needed to come correct. But Jay was at the peak of his powers, and he delivered an LP in the same league as Metallica’s, one we’d still remember today even without the misleading retirement fanfare. (What is it about acts that host big Madison Square Garden going away parties?) Jay-Z attempted something ballsy, and he pulled it off.
Now, stealing “The Black Album” from Metallica is one thing, and jacking “The White Album” from the Beatles is quite another. As monochrome self-titled full-lengths go, “The White Album” is the gold standard and the grandaddy of them all. It’s the Beatles at maybe their most ambitious and probably their most adventurous and definitely their most audacious, a towering icon of IDGAF brilliance plus bullshit that stands as one of the greatest “messy” double-LPs of all time — plus it invented the whole “nickname your self-titled album after its color” dealio. If a band were to attempt a “White Album” of their own, it’d have to be an inspired sprawling mess or, at the very least inspired.
Intentionally or not, that’s what Weezer — a band with one seminal “Blue Album,” one contentious “Green Album,” and one quickly forgotten “Red Album” to its name — have chosen to attempt. It’s possible Rivers Cuomo figures many 2016 Weezer fans don’t even know about the original “White Album,” and he might be right. But as a burgeoning Old Person, it’s hard for me to approach any “White Album” on its own terms. So let’s dispense with the comparison right away: Weezer’s “White Album” is not sprawling, nor is it a mess, and it’s not going to make anybody forget “Back In The U.S.S.R.” anytime soon.
But it doesn’t suck either, and that still surprises me. Weezer’s last album, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End, didn’t suck either. It was actually good, even great at times. But after so many creative devolutions and inexplicable choices, resulting in a stack of albums both inessential and embarrassing, it was hard to believe they’d (to borrow a phrase from Jay-Z) gotten their swagger back. Nonetheless, their “White Album” is the second straight Weezer full-length to succeed on its own terms.
So are Weezer back? Not exactly. For those of us who, like Cuomo, are rapidly watching our youth slip away, it’s not just hard to approach a new “White Album” on its own terms — it’s also hard to approach a new Weezer album on its own terms. For anyone who grew up with their twin ’90s masterpieces the “Blue Album” and Pinkerton, those albums represent an impossible standard, an emotionally charged moment in time that’s impossible to recreate. Both “Blue” and Pinkerton are all-killer no-filler documents of neurotic pop-rock at its finest, and beyond their sheer musical excellence, thanks to their cathartic nature and distinctly adolescent point of view, they’re imbued with hefty emotional weight. The quality is real, but so is the nostalgia.
That sweater has long since unraveled. We can’t go back to those halcyon days of “El Scorcho” past. Fellow disgruntled Cuomo acolytes, you and I are going to die someday; in the meantime, we need to let Weezer live. To wit: “The White Album” does not make me feel like Weezer used to make me feel. There is nothing that pumps me full of adrenaline and ecstasy like “Tired Of Sex,” no fist-pump moment on par with “Say It Ain’t So,” no triumph of musicianship akin to the guitar solo from “Buddy Holly.” But when I give this band a chance to be something other than the ’90s Weezer of our collective imagination, I realize they are also no longer the postmillennial Weezer of our nightmares. (Except on “Thank God For Girls.” That song is butt.)
Second single “Do You Wanna Get High?” turned out to be a great bellwether for “The White Album,” the way it does justice to the swaying, chugging, barely-holding-it-together Pinkerton sound albeit with lower stakes. Opener “California Kids” pulls the same “Pink Triangle” revival trick, but with less anxiety, more power-pop gloss, and a generous outpouring of guitar and vocal melodies. And lest we forget Cuomo’s geek credentials, the otherwise middling “Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori” gives us this description of young love: “She touched my ankle/ Paranoid android/ I felt it in my molecules.”
“King Of The World,” likewise, feels like ’90s Weezer with room to breathe. Closer “Endless Bummer” is an acoustic “Butterfly” knockoff that eventually blooms into something more like “Only In Dreams” — plus it includes the classically creepy/dejected Cuomo lyric “Not all 19-year-olds are cool” (presumably an allusion to some romance gone awry with a girl less than half his age). The sludgy sock-hop slowdance “L.A. Girlz” is a dead ringer for “Blue Album” B-side “Suzanne,” and I am not at all complaining about the resemblance.
Despite my stated intentions, up until now I’ve been dealing with Weezer’s present in terms of their past, in part because “The White Album” so effectively echoes the aesthetic of those classic LPs. In some ways it feels like Weezer have finally matured out of their extended adolescence, delivering the kinds of songs their OG fans have always treasured but in a more levelheaded fashion. Certainly, the feeling that Cuomo might lose it at any moment lent those early albums some of their breathtaking urgency, but again, we’ve seen the awkwardness that ensues when he tries to act like a youngster. At age 45, it’s enough to hear him return to the metaphorical garage to rock out.
That said, some of the project’s finest moments are the ones that feel truly new for Weezer, most of all penultimate track “Jacked Up.” That one’s a heartbroken mid-tempo piano rocker with genuine pathos, Cuomo testing the limits of his falsetto against Patrick Wilson’s crisp boom-bap. “Wind In Our Sails” roots the same style in the optimism of a new romance, and it’s OK too. And if you’re looking for a feel-good anthem only Cuomo could write, “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing,” a Beach Boys-inspired ditty (maybe) about two young Hari Krishna lovebirds, is seriously delightful. It might not lay the groundwork for a glorious future, and it has no hope of measuring up to Weezer’s storied past, but here in the present I’ve been enjoying it on repeat. And coming from the band that made Raditude, that’s reason enough for gratitude.
“The White Album” is out 4/1 via Crush Music/Atlantic.