Looking back, it’s probably fair to say Weezer were destined to fail. The California band started their career with two front-to-back classics—1994’s self-titled, so-called “Blue Album” and ’96’s Pinkerton. Yet those albums achieved the bulk of their notoriety while the band was on hiatus, in the late ’90s/early ’00s, so that by the time Weezer were ready to regroup and record a third LP, they already had an impossible task ahead of them: matching a legacy and a set of expectations that were decidedly incommensurate with not just one another, but with the band’s actual level of ability. Think about it: Aside from the Arcade Fire, how many modern bands have not only come out the gate with two immortal LPs, but have had those LPs reach immortality before their third album even came out? And how have those bands fared? (I can think of one off the top of my head—Oasis—and…well, case in point.) So Weezer’s fall from grace should come as no great surprise. Which doesn’t excuse the string of mediocrity and sub-mediocrity and pandering, patronizing, soulless pabulum produced by the band in the wake of Pinkerton, but maybe it helps to explain it. Maybe.
On the expanded Deluxe Edition of Weezer’s new album, Hurley, is a cover of the Coldplay hit “Viva La Vida.” Musically, it’s inessential—a faithful reading of a song that has achieved total blandness by virtue of its astonishing ubiquity—but listening to Weezer mastermind/control freak/frontman Rivers Cuomo sing those very familiar words puts everything that just preceded them into a neat perspective. Sings Cuomo in a stark, plaintive tone: “One minute I held the key/Next the walls were closed on me/And I discovered that my castles stand/Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.” As written by Coldplay, and when performed by that band, the song’s ostensible subjects are characters from history, but coming from Cuomo, the piece feels confessional, it feels personal, it feels like an apology and an explanation: “I used to rule the world,” sings Cuomo, owning that “I” in a way its songwriter does not intend it to be owned. “Now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own.”
That seems to be the essential thrust of Hurley (presumably named after the character on TV’s Lost, based on the unforgivable cover art, though some sort of tie-in with the pop-punk-friendly surfer clothier cannot be ruled out). The first song here is called “Memories,” and in it, Cuomo waxes nostalgic about making music before making music became a job: “Messing with the journalists and telling stupid lies/They had a feeling something was up because of the look in our eyes/In fact we didn’t know what we were doing half of the time/We were so sure of ourselves and sure of our way through life.” From those highs of days gone by, the song moves to an especially harrowing and bleak present: “I can hear them babies crying and the lawn needs to be mowed/I’ve got to get my groove on, honey, ’cause I’m freaking bored.”
Those lyrical themes—ennui, nostalgia, a midlife yearning for youth, a suburban existential crisis—are apparent throughout Hurley (which is, incidentally, the band’s first release on an independent label, in this case the SoCal-based Epitaph Records, home to the Weezer-esque likes of Bad Religion and Motion City Soundtrack). But there is something much more interesting here, too: not just nostalgia but genuine regret, a fear that a great amount of talent and good fortune has been wasted. For the listener, it cannot be enough that Cuomo is “freaking bored”—because who cares about the dissatisfaction of the filthy rich? What matters to us is the first half of that line, that he needs to “get [his] groove on.” It is that urgency, that artistic hunger, that makes Hurley so exciting. And it is impossible to mistake Cuomo’s concerns: As he did on “Blue Album” and Pinkerton—which primarily dealt with themes of adolescence and misanthropy, respectively—Hurley has a fairly singular lyrical target, which it hits more often than not. “Someday we’ll cut our critics down to size,” Cuomo sings in “Trainwrecks,” “we fall but then we rise.” In “Brave New World,” he sings, “Things will never be the same/I may snuff the burning flame/Or I may prove to be much more than I thought.” Of course, any album that opens with a track called “Memories” and closes with a track called “Time Flies” is not exactly being coy about its intentions, but contrary to the possible implications of those titles, Hurley does not bathe its writer’s emotions in warm sepia hues; there is a visceral dread and determination here, not just in the words but in the delivery, which is raw, impassioned, exuberant, alive.
The album’s centerpiece and its highlight, “Unspoken,” is one of the finest songs of Weezer’s career. Cuomo’s voice is in peak form, ranging from meekness to ferocity, and his craftsmanship has never been better. Again, the lyrics follow the prevailing theme, Cuomo’s contrition and regret here taking the form of anger: “And if you take this away from me, I’ll never forgive you, can’t you see?” The target of his venom is vague—is he referring to his fans? His critics? Himself?—which is ultimately inconsequential. In the song’s final chorus, he borrows both the trick and the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but it is employed deftly and gracefully, with enough sheer power to flatten any cynicism and dull any comparisons. The standouts don’t end there: The Big Star-ish “Run Away” features a sweet, melancholic guitar line courtesy of Ryan Adams; the triumphant and jubilant “Hang On” sounds a lot like some of the more anthemic moments on Andrew W.K.’s awesome The Wolf.
The album is not perfect and not always on message—and those two facts often coincide. Surely its most egregious moment will also be its most discussed: “Where’s My Sex?” is sophomoric and obnoxious. It relies on a massive hook and a silly lyrical trick that Cuomo seems to think is a whole lot cleverer than it really is. (Trick being: The word “sex” should be replaced by the word “socks”—because the song is really about…socks! Not sex! Socks! Haha! Get it?) The decision to include it here, at the heart of an economical and hard-hitting 10-song collection, calls into question any newfound self-awareness Cuomo might display elsewhere. To be clear, it doesn’t erase all evidence of that self-awareness, it just makes the whole thing feel…schizophrenic or something.
The essential difference between Hurley and the two classic Weezer albums is found in the details. For instance, “Where did all these smart girls come from?/I don’t think that I can choose just one” (from Hurley’s “Smart Girls”) is a fairly bland statement compared to, say, “Goddamn you half-Japanese girls/You do it to me every time/Well, the redhead said you played the cello, and I’m Jell-o, baby” (from Pinkerton’s “El Scorcho”). It seems Cuomo still wants to sing silly love songs, but they don’t capture his imagination the way they used to—and here, he’s torn between wanting to go back to those days (cf., “Memories”) and wanting to go forward (cf., “Brave New World”). Regardless, it’s hard to disparage a song that so enthusiastically extols the appeal of brainy women, especially one with such a slamming chorus. More importantly, Cuomo ends “Smart Girls” howling, hoarse, as if he is singing for his life, as if he actually cares. That’s a lot more than can be said of anything else Weezer has released since Pinkerton. Indeed, Hurley feels like it might capture the first time in a very, very long time that Cuomo’s investment in his music matches the investment his fans have made. And now, finally, for all parties involved, that investment feels as though it is being rewarded.