The Lowdown: When a band has a career that spans across decades, there’s usually a good reason behind it. In the case of Weezer, their longevity has arguably stemmed from the fact that they released two albums early in their career, The Blue Album and Pinkerton, that went on to be major hits and ’90s landscape changers. When a band raises the bar so high so early on, it can be difficult to maintain upward momentum. Yet, Weezer have largely done just that. They quickly established themselves as a beloved band that churned out work that satisfied the public palette. Because of this — and this is especially the case for longtime listeners — certain expectations are set in terms of quality. Therefore, anything less than what listeners know they can bring to the table feels like a step backward.
And that feeling is legitimate when it comes to Weezer’s latest release, The Black Album. Weezer strayed further than usual from what is widely considered to be their traditional sound, incorporating electronic elements, dabbling in light rap, and even devoting an entire song to zombies. While experimentation is not damning by any means, it can be if it results in an overall loss of quality — something that The Black Album serves as a cautionary tale of.
The Good: The Black Album contains moments where instrumentation and vocal performance truly shine through, and this is perhaps best exemplified within “High as a Kite”. With its soft ambiance and introspective narrative, the track serves as a rich oasis amidst an album that can otherwise feel challenging to decipher and digest. It offers lyrics the listener can sink their soul into and a lush soundscape where piano, electric guitar, and chimes bleed together almost seamlessly. Unlike other tracks on The Black Album, where it appears that some semblance of rap is being attempted, “High as a Kite” is a sobering reminder of the strong voice that Rivers Cuomo has always had and how well-suited it is for conquering long, full melodies.
The Bad: What detracts from Cuomo’s vocal performance and even some promising compositions are bizarre lyrical choices that nearly every track falls victim to in one way or another. For example, “Too Many Thoughts in My Head” sandwiches the line “fuel up bitch, there’s no more slacking” between name-drops of Mary Poppins and Moses. “California Snow” is perhaps the worst offender of all, containing the lines “When I play guitar, it’s sick, woo!” and “If you see a tear fall/ Don’t worry ‘bout me, y’all/ This is what it’s like on top.” This lack of substance acts as a letdown across the album, and it’s out of character for a band that have proven themselves capable of writing lyrics on a level several echelons beyond wherever it is they’ve landed with The Black Album.
The other troubles lie not with what Weezer tried to do, but how they did it. Between the opener of “California Snow” sounding like the introduction to Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” received an EDM makeover, the simplistic and half-baked potential of “Living in LA”, and the lack of variation in “Piece of Cake”, Weezer presents an unmistakably watered-down version of what they’re capable of musically. Their decision to undertake a pop/electronic hybrid sound on The Black Album was clearly intentional, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, innovation never has to come at the expense of substance and good songwriting.
The Verdict: While it is absolutely no crime for a band to flirt with sonic experimentation, a disastrous affair can brew when the flirtation results in a body of work that is far more two-dimensional and hollow than what the band have proven capable of doing through their decades of previous work. Of course, The Black Album is not completely void of redeeming qualities, and there will likely be many listeners who are pleased with what they hear at times. Those listeners, however, may not be those who fell in love with the version of Weezer that existed in the middle of the ‘90s. Instead, the listeners within that sector may feel something comparable to watching a good friend make a bad decision — the love for who they are is ever-present, and that’s precisely why watching them make a misstep can create a sense of dismay.
Essential Tracks: “High as a Kite” and “I’m Just Being Honest”
Buy: Pick up a copy of The Black Album and other Weezer music at Reverb LP.