Blue to Black, is there any turning back?

Up until recently, I would’ve confidently named Chicago as the band that had the biggest career drop-off from seriously kick-ass rock band to absolutely lame-ass schlock band. And before you say the self-described “rock and roll band with horns” was always lame, please go back and listen to their early stuff, their long-before-Terry-Kath-accidentally-blew-his-own-brains-out stuff; they weren’t always Peter Cetera warbling the audible cheese of ‘If You Leave Me Now.’ But that unenviable title just got re-claimed – though it pains me to say it because I do love this band – by the four formerly cool nerds known as Weezer.

They came out of nowhere (well, technically out of Los Angeles) in 1994. And after cleverly splicing themselves into a video from Arnold’s in “Happy Days” Weezer dropped the sludgy banger ‘Buddy Holly,’ whose power chords and first two lines (“What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl? / Why do they gotta front?”) made it an instant classic within the first 10 seconds. That record, known simply as the Blue Album and also containing the mega-hits ‘Undone – The Sweater Song’ and ‘Say It Ain’t So,’ went triple Platinum, and left Weezer, led by their geeky anti-hero, Rivers Cuomo, unlikely overnight superstars.

And that’s where things began to get a bit tricky. Conflicted and ambivalent over their sudden fame, their follow-up album, 1996’s Pinkerton, was a darker, more abrasive, conceptual album that to some – like my son, Max – was the pinnacle of their greatness,¹ never to be matched again, while others considered the band’s immediate departure to be jarring and disappointing, as was reflected by its comparatively weak sales.

As for me, regarding the unresolved disparity of Blue and Pinkerton, I loved them both. And I also loved the next group of albums that, after a lengthy hiatus, some band turnover, and Cuomo’s declared period of depression, finally came out thereafter: the Green Album (2001), Maladroit (2002), Make Believe (2005) and the Red Album (2008). Their formula was not complicated: Loud, thrashing, crunchy power guitar chords paired with off-beat, quirky lyrics. To me, they could do no wrong. And their appeal was widespread: My friend, Bobby, who otherwise knows basically nothing about music, chose the Weezer song ‘Islands In The Sun’ as his wedding ceremony walk-out music, surely his only cool musical endeavor ever.

Yet for some reason, Weezer always, and I mean always, incited irrationally heated conversation – often full-on arguments – among both fans and critics alike, as to when the band was actually really good, and when they stopped being any good at all. Just last month, a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Leslie Jones and guest-host Matt Damon lampooned this constant clash…only to my experience I don’t think it was actually that exaggerated.

But even to this “Ride or Die” fan, there was admittedly a downside to the band’s creative graph, and it was after that Red Album, whose songs ‘Troublemaker,’ ‘Dreamin’,’ and, of course, ‘Pork And Beans,’ were still vintage Weezer (I guess in retrospect maybe the sentimental ballad ‘Heart Songs’ was an indicative turning point, but goddamn it, I liked that song). Following that, Weezer put out a succession of 6 albums over 8 years – the ones Matt Damon’s character still esteemed – which to me sadly progressed somewhere from bland to feeble to downright pathetic. Unlike certain fans, it didn’t ruin the band for me, didn’t tarnish their existing, awesome catalogue. I just figured they were awkwardly chasing some popular trends, or maybe that they’d turned some middle-aged corner. And in any event, unlike Matt Damon, I just kind of lost interest in them.

Weezer had recently enjoyed some renewed attention at the end of 2018 with their viral cover of the highly recognizable 1982 Toto tune ‘Africa’ (the song that initially precipitates the disagreement in the SNL skit). It was, at least as it seemed, a one-off thing, and the popularity of their straight-ahead interpretation would undoubtedly have been described as in large part ironic in nature. Then came yesterday, when a 2-word tweet arrived from among my most highly respected of rock critics, Steven Hyden, stating simply: “Kill me,” and revealing Weezer, dressed in Miami Vice-era get-ups, covering the late-‘90’s TLC R&B song ‘No Scrubs.’ Even more alarming, it turned out that the appalling ‘No Scrubs’ was merely part of an entire unannounced album of tacky covers, titled the Teal Album. I reviewed the track list (‘Billie Jean,’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),’ ‘Take On Me’ and worse), I listened to all the simply horrific versions (Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ might be the most offensive), and I was nothing short of flabbergasted. These sounded like awkward karaoke, like those old, awful K-Tel compilations of hits, the sham “as-performed-by” reproductions that were the ruse of late-night infomercials. Could this whole exercise simply be a tongue-in-cheek lark? Attempted kitsch? Mustn’t this be intentionally terrible? Please!? Was it genuinely possible that a formerly great rock band, makers of what Leslie Jones correctly called “two perfect albums” long ago, could actually produce something so odious, so revolting, so utterly devoid of artistic credibility? Something just so fucking bad??

I guess at this point, the answer is unclear. I did find some sort of back-story: a guy whose Twitter account @weezerafrica had as its sole mission since its creation in 2017 to get Weezer to cover ‘Africa’ – which as we now know, incredibly, they ultimately did! Could this have led directly to Weezer’s perhaps cheeky attempt at this entire foolhardy Teal covers album? Is this all some sort of musical meme, a severely shrewd marketing scheme? (in the immediate aftermath, the internet has exploded with Weezer intrigue, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas of TLC has already expressed interest in collaborating with them: “I hope we can perform ‘No Scrubs’ together,” she recently told Rolling Stone). Can a Weezer fan please just position Teal as something, anything, other than straightforward and sincere?

I think I’ll have to. In March Weezer will release another record, their 13th, the highly anticipated Black Album. Try as I might to dismiss it, and to deservedly now reject the band entirely, I, for one, still find myself perversely looking forward to it. I can’t help it, I’m still with Weezer.

So on that blindly hopeful note, here’s Weezer with ‘Beverly Hills,’ a guileless, three-chord churner of a tune – whose video oddly features Hugh Hefner and the Playboy mansion – from what I (and certainly Matt Damon) still consider to be the good Weezer period. As the aforementioned late-career cheese-meisters Chicago once sang, they’re a ‘Hard Habit To Break.’

¹In 2002 Rolling Stone readers voted Pinkerton the 16th greatest album of all time

*A bonus track, ‘Crab’, probably my all-time favorite Weezer tune