Weezer realized that nostalgia sells. Ahead of releasing the postponed Van Weezer, a tribute to frontman Rivers Cuomo’s metal and glam-rock roots, select fan club members began receiving mysterious floppy disks in the mail. It had the word “Masterpiece” crudely scribbled on the front that, for the few people who had the technology to open the contents, revealed an old pixelated photo of Cuomo with a computer, some ASCII art and a not-so-vintage Spotify playlist. It’s Weezer, of course, and this sort of heartwarming cheesiness is both expected and welcome.
It hasn’t always been this way. The band’s second album, Pinkerton, owed a large part of its popularity to its lukewarm critical reception upon release. Despite being retroactively viewed as a classic, Cuomo regretted the personal nature of the record, telling Entertainment Weekly in 2001, “It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.” It’s hard to believe that the same guys who sang about writing sexual snail mail to Japanese girls have become stadium-rock darlings, churning out hits and enjoying family-friendly popularity for the past two decades. On the contrary, the band’s latest effort OK Human feels, well, human.
Part of that feeling comes from breaking the cycle of constant recording and touring, a routine Weezer is well known for. Much of this record was written in 2017, with recording taking place during the pandemic when the band was forced to postpone their worldwide Hella Mega Tour. Cuomo made the decision to abandon the catchy power chords in favor of an orchestra, embracing the vulnerability of the songs and, in his words, “not worrying about commercial potential at all.”
It’s jarring at first. Weezer has had their fair share of acoustic tracks, but the orchestra brings out something new. It puts a magnifying glass on Cuomo’s imperfections, at times feeling almost uncomfortable. Each quirk in his voice becomes more apparent, and the lyrical quirks are more noticeable, too. At times, OK Human is laughably straightforward. Opener “All My Favorite Songs” introduces the album with “All my favorite songs are slow and sad / All my favorite people make me mad/ Everything that feels so good is bad, bad, bad.” Then again, this album feels more like an experience than a definitive thesis statement. The violins turn the simplistic rhymes into an introduction to Cuomo’s brilliant mind, shining a spotlight on his unimposing figure in the darkness.
That’s not to say Weezer won’t abandon their corporate image, and “Grapes of Wrath” is essentially an Audible ad that touts the importance of escaping into literature, but even then, it’s almost forgivable. There is also “Screens,” one of the album’s lows. There is only so much to be said about technology being bad, and the exaggerated depictions of young girls listening to K-pop and looking at memes get old quick.
The string section paints the quirky world of OK Human one stroke at a time, followed by the much more familiar drums and keyboards. “Playing My Piano,” a spiritual follow-up to “In The Garage” from their debut album, explores the safe havens of writing and playing music in solitude, with “Piano” being the more mature version that comes with being married with children. It swells into rock-opera goodness with vocal harmonies and a bustling orchestra behind Cuomo, evoking that tortured genius trope best exemplified by one of his heroes, Brian Wilson. (Weezer cite Pet Sounds as one of the foremost inspirations for OK Human.)
Cuomo is thriving in quarantine, foregoing the profitable yet impersonal mainstream rock that Weezer has become known for over the past three decades. That’s not to say they don’t have their highs, like 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In the End (with the helpful magical touch of the late, great Ric Ocasek). Weezer has always had heart, and OK Human shows the value of taking time to record instead of filling the silence with countless tours and albums. Weezer is finally taking risks outside of the formula that has worked so well, and they still have a lot of mileage left in them.
Jade Gomez is a New Jersey-based freelance writer, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. Feel free to shout into the void or check out her website www.jadegomez.com.