Monday, August 24, 2009

Rock Bottom: Weezer

The one constant in every established artist's oeuvre is the bad album, the one that's reviled by both fans and critics. Those unlovable albums are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the AllMusic Guide (for the critical point-of-view) and Amazon.com (for the fan perspective*). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the worst. I may not alw
ays agree with the choice, and my reviews will reflect that. I'll also offer a considered alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) b-sides or remix compilations, 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded when the band was missing a vital member, and 4) forays into a different genres (i.e. classical).

*A note about Amazon.com. I consider this the fan perspective, because most people who choose to review albums on this site are adoring fans of the artist in question.

* * *

I saw the news the other day that Weezer's seventh album, Raditude, is due October 27, and you would have needed a very sensitive scale to measure my interest. Oh, how the mighty hath fallen. Circa 2002, after their Green Album return and before the release of Maladroit, I monitored Weezer.com daily. Let me repeat, DAILY. I was desperate for any news I could get.

Now granted, I'm not web-obsessed with any bands these days. Part of it is that my life is a little fuller than it was then, and part of it is that all of the artists who were the object of such an obsession gave me reason to quit. One broke up (XTC), one might as well have (Smashing Pumpkins), and one has only put out three new songs in the past 12 years (Van Halen). Weezer has no such excuse, save an alarming descent into mediocrity.

Let me stop here and qualify that statement. I admit that I have a bias on this. Weezer's first two albums (1994's Weezer and 1996's Pinkerton) hit me at an extremely impressionable time, and I hold them in very high esteem. But I would never take my bias and use it to pan an artist's new work, because that would suggest two insidious things. For one, it implies that no new album could ever possibly live up to the beloved early favorites, that the artist is incapable of ever again achieving such greatness. That's a closed-minded, cynical view (and would any music writer want to be told that the the first reviews they wrote were perfect and that they'll never be able to write anything as good?). Two, hating a new album because it isn't like an earlier favorite is basically a refusal to allow for change. An artist may subtly or drastically change his or her style and as fans and critics we don't have a say in that, even if the new status quo isn't to our liking. We're allowed to complain, sure, but eventually we have to let it go.

So when I say that Weezer has descended into mediocrity, I really mean that I haven't found any of their latter-day records to be as compelling as I found their first two to be.

But enough about what I think (at least for now). What do the critics and fans have to say about Weezer's worst album? The margin on this one was razor thin. My three usual go-to sources, AllMusic Guide, Rolling Stone, and Amazon.com, split the difference between Make Believe (2005) and the Red Album (2008). In fact, they ended up dead even, with AllMusic giving the rock bottom nod to the former and Amazon.com bestowing it upon the latter. I had to go that extra mile, to Metacritic.com. The site, which averages all available reviews of an album into a score out of 100, settled it. Make Believe got a 52. The Red Album got a 64.

Shows you what I know. Make Believe is solidly in the middle of my Weezer album quality scale. I'd rank it at forth (possibly even third) out of their six albums. So why do so many others have it dead last? Of course, I did some research to find to know exactly where the disconnect happened. It wasn't easy at first.

AllMusic Guide's Stephen Thomas Earlwine spends two paragraphs comparing the album to Pinkerton before deciding that "something separates Make Believe from previous Weezer albums: a palpable sense of optimism, a feeling of hope, a new positivity." That's all well and good, but Earlwine is pretty sure that the fans don't want positivity in their Weezer songs. He also allows that "it's pretty much a given that [fans] won't respond to Rick Rubin's sleek, layered, propulsive production, which makes Weezer sound far more new wave than Ric Ocasek [producer of their first and third albums] ever did. But let those fans pine for the past, because the very things that they'll find irritating about Make Believe are what make it yet another first-rate Weezer record." His final conclusion is that fans will need time to accept and love Make Believe, just like they did for Pinkerton. It's a fair point, but does that sound like a description of the worst album in a band's oeuvre? Well, the truth is that Earlwine is just a big Weezer fan, judging by the baffling 4.5 star rating he gave the Red Album.

Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield is similarly positive about the album. He says it's a "breakthrough" for the band, and that "Cuomo's songs are his most plaintive and brilliant since Pinkerton." So, again, not really what you typically hear about a band's worst album.

Things start to make more sense when we look elsewhere. Pitchfork.com reviewer Rob Mitchum writes a savage but mostly well-argued critique of the album. He finds little originality or personality in the songwriting and feels the song-selection could have been much better given how many tunes the band had to choose from (songwriter Rivers Cuomo is very prolific). I don't agree with most of his points, but he makes them the minimal amount of unnecessary negativity and hipster posturing (regular Pitchfork readers will know this is nothing to take for granted). In fact, the only petty thing about Mitchum's review is his final rating of the album. He gave it a 0.4 out of 10. That's right, four tenths of a point out of 10. His reasoning? Not listed, and probably arbitrary. I understand not liking something. Give it a zero then, or a one. A 0.4 is just an attempt to be cute.

But, Amazon.com reviewers back him up. The complaints about the album are fairly consistent: The band sold out (T.Gore: "This album goes beyond cheezy, I mean its like listening to a bad version of the Monkees"), the music is unoriginal and overly-polished (Pixies Fan: "Whats up with the crappy 80's metal guitar solos Rivers. You can tell their manager told them what to write and to write it like all the other crappy music going around these days"), the lyrics are laughable (Rusty Camino: "Every time Rivers lays down a lyric, you hope, pray, burst blood vessels begging the gods of art to not allow the couplet you're about to witness end with the most obvious rhyming counterpart you've ever heard. Then you forget to think there must be no gods of art, because you're too busy cringing at "sometimes I let you go/sometimes I hurt you so.") More than a few reviewers used some combination of the following comments: "I used to love Weezer but not anymore", "say it ain't so", and "make believe this album is actually good".

So, who's right? Earlwine, Sheffield, and myself? Or Mitchum and the legions of former Weezer fans who took their anger to Amazon.com? Well, it seems we all have valid points. Make Believe isn't a perfect album by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it approach the quality of the Blue Album or Pinkerton. But is it really worth 0.4 out of 10? Is it really "garbage" or a "career killer" as Devin S. Carney and C. Davis assert? No.

Here's my theory: I think the rancor directed toward Make Believe was really a long-burning frustration finally boiling over. I think most early Weezer were slightly disappointed in the Green Album, but most of us were just happy that the band was back after 5 years. And the songs were buzzy and sugary enough to forgive their lyrical shortcomings. But when the same thing happened on Maladroit and the songs that weren't nearly as memorable, serious doubt began to creep in.

I seriously think that by the time Make Believe came out most fans were finally coming to terms with the fact that the Weezer they loved was probably not coming back. And that's somewhat ironic, because the album actually goes some way in rectifying the problems with Maladroit. In fact, that was the focus of my 2005 review of the album. I found a lot to like then, and upon relistening now, I feel the same. The lyrics find Rivers opening up again, perhaps not to the level of the lonely admissions of In the Garage (where the narrator takes refuge in role-playing games, comic books, and dreaming about being a member of KISS) or the somewhat creepy thoughts of Across the Sea (impure fantasies about an 18-year-old Japanese fan), but opening up nonetheless.

Why then, if Make Believe got an unfair rap, why wasn't last year's lackluster Red Album the final nail in the coffin? How did it get a higher ranking from critics? Well, I have answers for those queries. Though that album continued the band's return to more personal territory, it also had the benefit of low expectations and general apathy. Critics had used up their epithets on Make Believe, and were now looking for a sniff of redemption. That's always a good angle. The album was "quirky" and "experimental" too, and critics are always hesitant to dismiss anything they may not fully understand. The fan reaction is more telling. Most of them gave up on Weezer with Make Believe, so the Red Album was met with general apathy and major boredom (apologies to Ben Folds). This shows in how few fans actually bothered to even review the album on Amazon.com (Make Believe has 344 reviews, the Red Album only has 120).

My final argument for Make Believe not being Weezer's true Rock Bottom is the iTunes Test. To keep the number of songs manageable on my iTunes, I rarely upload entire albums. I cherrypick favorite tracks. The iTunes Test, then, is a simple numbers game. The better an album is, the more tracks I've kept in my music library. The first three Weezer albums are there in their entirety. I have 6 tracks from Make Believe, two from the Red Album (Pork and Beans and Heart Songs), and one from Maladroit (Keep Fishin').

By that test, then Maladroit would be the worst Weezer album. At first I thought maybe the test had failed me. I was more likely to name the Red Album, with its combination of over-the-top goofiness (The Greatest Man That Ever Lived and Everybody Get Dangerous) and boring tracks (Dreamin', Cold Dark World, etc.), as the band's nadir. But then I realized that Maladroit has something worse on its resume. None of the songs are truly terrible, but it was the first time the band really disappointed me, the first time I realized that maybe they weren't what I thought.

That's a tough realization, and a definite Rock Bottom moment.

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