The Anniversary

“The Green Album” Turns 20

Geffen
2001
Geffen
2001

After the release of Pinkerton in 1996, Rivers Cuomo decided that he needed to straighten some things out — so he got braces. The Weezer frontman was living in an apartment across from a cement mixing plant, underneath the dreaded 405 freeway in Los Angeles, where he painted the walls black and blocked out the windows. He retreated from society, going months at a time without speaking to anyone, and when he did venture outside, he looked so rough that there were rumors he was homeless. Even by the standards of someone who grew up in a Connecticut ashram known as “Yogaville,” as he did, it was a strange time in Cuomo’s life. In retrospect, it was an opportune moment for orthodontia.

This was a crucial crossroads in Weezer’s career. After “The Blue Album” became an unlikely smash in 1994, going triple platinum, the much-hyped follow-up Pinkerton bombed critically and commercially, dismantling the band’s momentum. If you can, forget what you know about what eventually happened to Pinkerton — how it developed a reputation as one of the best albums of the ’90s — and transport yourself back to a world in which it was so looked down upon that Rolling Stone readers voted it the third-worst album of the year. For Cuomo, as quickly as he had climbed the ladder of rock stardom that he had spent his life dreaming about in the garage, it was suddenly all in jeopardy. He had to figure out what went wrong — and more importantly, he had to fix it. He was 26 years old.

Cuomo has always been a befuddling figure in the music world. When he arrived in LA at 18, he was a hair-metal devotee who would soon flunk out of the Guitar Institute of Technology. Within just a few years, however, he had become an alternative rock icon known for his unabashed nerdiness, putting music aside to enroll at Harvard University. In interviews from the early years, Cuomo is routinely described as being an impossible subject, at turns both painfully withdrawn and painfully honest. He avoids eye contact, takes long pauses before responding to questions, and can be standoffish if he doesn’t like what’s being asked. But if and when he does answer, he holds nothing back. (“Dude, you’re in Weezer — that’s cool,” drummer Pat Wilson said to guitarist Brian Bell when the latter was recruited to the band during the making of “The Blue Album.” “You’re going to think Rivers is the weirdest person you’ve ever met.”)

It’s not hard to grasp the narrative of “The Green Album,” which was released 20 years ago this week, and that’s because Cuomo explained in explicit detail how hurt he was by Pinkerton‘s failure. Largely written while he was at Harvard, dealing with the excruciating recovery of leg surgery that required him to tighten screws in his femur every day (dental braces must have seemed like a piece of cake later on), Pinkerton was one long diary entry; he wrote about his crushes (foreign and domestic), his neuroses, his failures. To have it panned tore him apart — so he responded by disowning it.

In a 2001 Rolling Stone interview promoting “The Green Album,” he famously described Pinkerton as “diseased,” stating that he never wanted to hear or play any of the songs ever again. “It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away,” Cuomo told Entertainment Weekly.

The five-year gap between Pinkerton and “The Green Album” still stands as the longest in Weezer’s career, and includes entire chapters of false starts, bootlegs, and live shows exclusively of Nirvana and Oasis covers. Some of the material, particularly the demos known as SS2K (aka “Summer Songs 2000”), is strong, and hints at an alternate path that Weezer could have gone down if they wanted their sound to continue to have an edge. It very well may have been the path that they should have gone down — and that’s where things get screwy.

Pinkerton’s retroactive adoration was too little, too late for Cuomo, and when it came time to finally come out of his black-walled apartment and record, he decided to move the band forward by looking backward: “Torniamo all antico, e sarà un progresso,” it eventually said on the back cover of “The Green Album,” which is a quote from Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi that translates to “Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.”

Everything about “The Green Album” is a direct return to the approach of “The Blue Album,” from the bubblegum hooks to the cover design to the production style, with “Blue” producer Ric Ocasek once again taking the helm. (It’s an ongoing joke we take for granted now, but even the name of the album — technically just Weezer — was the same.) Quite clearly, Cuomo was saying, well, if you hated Pinkerton so much, here’s “The Blue Album” again; I’ll give you what you want if you stop yelling at me. “I don’t know if [my songwriting] has moved forward,” he said in a 2001 cover story in Alternative Press. “It’s moved to the side.”

Not everyone seems to have been on board with this approach, as made evident by the fact that “The Green Album” is the first Weezer album without bassist Matt Sharp. Ostensibly, the reason for his departure was that he wanted to focus more on his group the Rentals (side projects were always a sore subject for Cuomo), but it’s hard not to presume that creative differences also played a role. (Sharp later sued the band for songwriting royalties; he and Cuomo are on better terms these days.) Standing awkwardly in Sharp’s place was Mikey Welsh, one of Cuomo’s Boston buddies. As much as Cuomo wanted this to be a return to form for Weezer, there was no getting around it: “The Green Album” marked a new era. People were going to notice.

With its lack of sonic variety, lightning-short 28-minute runtime, and lyrics so generic that even Cuomo would admit they were largely about nothing (“The lyrics suck,” he told CMJ), “The Green Album” was a new kind of betrayal for Weezer superfans. For those of them coming together in massive numbers due to the cult of Pinkerton and the spread of internet communities, it felt like a cruel joke to hear the almost robotic pop of “Don’t Let Go” at the beginning of the record — for this to be the long-awaited return of a band that had grown to a mythical status.

It seemed like “The Green Album” was designed to satisfy the exact wrong type of listener, if there is such a thing, and it did indeed satisfy plenty, debuting on the Billboard 200 at #4. Critically, as well, the album was more well received than you’d probably think, possibly due to a certain degree of guilt on the press’ part for the crucifixion of Pinkerton. (Rolling Stone literally re-reviewed Pinkerton in 2004 to give it a perfect score.) In a market in which pop-punk was continuing to shove its way into the mainstream conversation — also on the charts at the time were Sum 41, American Hi-Fi, and the Josie & The Pussycats soundtrack — Weezer was suddenly king, and Cuomo more or less officially (and pretty legitimately) decreed to be Gen X’s answer to Brian Wilson. (That title comes with as much talent as it does dysfunction.)

But the superfan disgust with “The Green Album” was real, its black sheep status so severe that, in a 2016 interview with ABC’s Dan Harris, Cuomo assumed Harris was talking about it when a question made vague reference to a project that led to a “fan revolt.” (Harris was actually talking about 2010’s Hurley and frankly could have been referring to any number of alienating steps in the band’s career.) To this day, “The Green Album” is rarely cited among favorites in the still-passionate Weezer community, instead usually acknowledged as the band’s first misstep.

If anything, its status has further waned over time as well, as the first two albums get elevated to higher and higher planes of lore. “Green” doesn’t belong in that canon — not much does — but after unloading the 747’s worth of baggage it comes with, what remains is a piece of music much better than its reputation: a quick dagger of an album, with an Ocasek-curated sound so tight that it feels like it might crack at any moment, spilling the radioactive goo of pure pop-rock inside.

That said, some of the original criticisms do remain valid. Namely, for someone who has better solos on demos than most players lay down in their entire lives, it sure is a shame to hear Cuomo hold back in the guitar department. But the pound-for-pound melodic weight is hard to overstate, the casual genius of its song structures a marvel to behold. “Photograph” is the mutant Beach Boys redux we knew Weezer had in them since “Buddy Holly,” and the wall of sound on “Glorious Day” is everything you need to know about why this band has consistently sold out arenas for decades. It won’t serve you well to think too much about what Rivers is singing about on “Crab” (did this guy really just say “Crab at the booty/ ‘Tain’t gonna do no good”?), but good luck not feeling lit up when that KISS-ified guitar fill comes in. Hell, just the bridge of “Smile” alone made this CD worth your $15.99 at Borders or whatever.

The best track by a mile will always be “Hash Pipe,” a surprisingly profane song that figures as one of the sludgiest, strangest rock songs to ever be an international hit. (Unlike the rest of the album, this one is actually about something, too: Cuomo described it as coming from the perspective a transgender sex worker on Santa Monica Boulevard, sort of like a musical precursor to Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine.) Given that it’s the only SS2K song to have made the release, you can come to your own conclusions about what alternate path for Weezer would have been better for us all. But it is what it is, and acting too good for a song like “Island In The Sun” is sort of like talking shit on “California Girls” — you’re only depriving yourself, and you’re not fooling anyone, either.

In the immediate wake of “The Green Album,” Cuomo was already aware that he’d found yet another way to upset everyone. “Of the millions of people who’ve already heard [the album], they all say that it sounds totally different from either of the first two; we’ve lost what made us great,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2001. “They hate it. Go on the internet.” The dude simply couldn’t win, and it was this kind of frustration and defeat that would bring him to half-jokingly refer to Weezer fans as “little bitches” on the Maladroit press cycle the next year. What could he possibly do to make everyone happy? As he was starting to figure out, likely nothing.

The Weezer story is sort of sad when you think too much about it — an effective parable for how complicated making art can be within a capitalist machine, for how much audiences can shape the artists they care about, in good ways and bad. Even today, Cuomo still seems caught between the issues he was trying to navigate 20 years ago, occasionally writing from a confessional perspective, occasionally just using spreadsheets to find words and phrases that fit mathematically into the music playing in his head.

This year he seems to have settled on a fresh solution, anyway, which is to release a little something for everyone, with OK Human serving as a legitimately touching window into his various mid-life crises, and Van Weezer serving as an unbelievably stupid simulation of ’80s hair metal. Take your pick, Cuomo seems to be saying. Please don’t yell at me anymore. “Nothin’ matters in the world and everyone is free,” he sings on OK Human‘s “Bird With A Broken Wing.” “But I’ll belong to you if you believe in me.”

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