Legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the blues, and that Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo sold his to write “Beverly Hills.” Or at least that’s the assumption that’s plagued the band over the last decade—even though, by traditional measures of success, that infernally catchy cut from their 2005 album, Make Believe, marked a triumphant breakthrough in their career. (It was the first Weezer song nominated for a Grammy.) Because the band’s first two albums—the woolly power pop of 1994’s The Blue Album and the uncompromisingly abrasive 1996 post-fame exorcism Pinkerton—are so fiercely beloved, Weezer have spent the majority of their 22-year run grappling with their aftermath and the strange burden of Meaning Something to a Lot of People (myself included; I am one of those people who can tell you exactly what they were wearing the first time they heard Pinkerton). But in the post–Make Believe years, this has come to feel less like “grappling” and more like outright trolling, as though Cuomo were making a sport of alienating the fans who grew up with him and instead courting a younger, less discerning, and at times seemingly imaginary audience. It almost felt like a game to see how tastelessly hypernow Weezer could be: There was a cringeworthy Lil Wayne collaboration called “Can’t Stop Partying” (“Okay, bitches, Weezer and it’s Weezy”), the puzzlingly po-faced cover of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” and who could forget the album cover dedicated to Hurley from Lost? (In 2010, one former Weezer fan took to the internet to try to raise $10 million that he’d give to the band if they agreed to break up.) In their 40s, Weezer were starting to look like rock’s most delusional “cool” dads, presuming they could outrun nostalgia, irrelevance, and time by anxiously staying up on whatever the kids were into. They had the air of a band regarding their audience the way Matthew McConaughey thinks of high-school girls in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same.”
Everything Will Be Alright in the End, the band’s ninth album, serves as a rather frank apology for the last decade of Weezer. “Sorry, guys, I didn’t realize that I needed you so much,” Cuomo admits on the first single, the close-cropped hair-metal tune “Back to the Shack.” “I thought I’d get a new audience, I forgot that disco sucks.” Gone are the Dr. Luke co-writing credits and lyrics that play out like the plotlines of bad teen-sex comedies; instead, Everything is all about riffs—the kind of big, magnificently cornball Ace Frehley sound that Cuomo famously mythologized on The Blue Album’s “In the Garage.” Everything ends with a three-song suite that plays out like a (somewhat less epic) “November Rain” in miniature, and along the way it finds Cuomo making some bold promises: “Don’t wanna compromise my art for universal appeal / Don’t wanna end up mass consumed / I’m not a Happy Meal.” Weezer are clearly gunning for the “return to form!” pull quote from critics, and in almost every way they’re presenting the album like it’s The Blue Album’s long-awaited sequel. (It was even produced by their old collaborator, Cars front man Ric Ocasek.) Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Back to the Shack,” which fancies itself a rallying cry to “kick in the door” and “[rock] out like it’s ’94.”
Nineteen ninety-four was, of course, the year Weezer broke. And just as the nostalgia-crazed internet has with the many other important musical 20th anniversaries this year (Nas’s Illmatic, Green Day’s Dookie, Hole’s Live Through This), on May 10 it took a moment to pause, collectively reflecting on the legacy of The Blue Album. (My favorite of the requisite retrospectives, oral histories, and “20 Facts You May Not Know About Weezer’s Blue Album” came courtesy of the website Flavorwire, which asked musicians like Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast to wax poetic about the album, track by track.) On that iconic cover that looked like a police lineup of the four least-threatening dudes on the planet, Cuomo, Matt Sharp, Brian Bell, and Pat Wilson were unlikely heroes, underdogs: Kiss-obsessed Dungeon Masters in unraveling sweaters singing mash notes to girls who looked like Mary Tyler Moore. But in alt-rock’s post-grunge moment, The Blue Album struck a huge, rippling chord. It sold more than 3 million copies, inspired countless similarly bespectacled emo kids to pick up guitars, and garnered the kind of fame that prompted a follow-up album on which our aforementioned Dungeon Masters had to go and write a song called “Tired of Sex.”
The problem with Everything Will Be Alright in the End is that it doesn’t evoke a nostalgic feeling for Weezer’s sound in 1994 so much as how people felt about Weezer in 1994. It often seems like a lazy, empty invocation of the kind of ’90s nostalgia that the internet churns out daily (and, in a full-circle moment, Best Coast’s Cosentino even sings with Cuomo on the rather dull he-said/she-said duet “Go Away”). On tracks like the oddly self-aggrandizing “Eulogy for a Rock Band,” Everything too often asks us to consider Weezer underdogs—bastions of talent and authenticity in a world of “stupid singing shows”—but to do that you’d have to forget that they’ve been famous and (even after their recent sales slump, relatively) successful since 1994. “Back to the Shack” wears its meta-confessionalism like a badge of honor, but in the end it only makes me wonder: If Raditude and Hurley had sold as well as The Blue Album and Make Believe, would we have gotten something like “Can’t Stop Partying II (Still Partying)”? Are Weezer only courting the 1994-nostalgic demographic because the kids finally abandoned them?
I wouldn’t feel as compelled to ask these questions if the album were stronger, but in the end Everything Will Be Alright is all talk, making too many promises on which it can’t quite deliver. (It’s also far from the first time they’ve done this; see Nate Jones’s recent post “An Oral History of Weezer Promising Their New Album Will Be Better.”) Everything has a few highlights, to be sure: The opener “Ain’t Got Nobody” is without a doubt the best Weezer song in years, and even though they’re marred by juvenile lyrics, “Da Vinci” and “The British Are Coming” are classic Cuomo melodies. But too much of the album is unimaginative filler—a band trying to re-create their heyday simply by … repeatedly telling us that it happened. Everything finds Weezer in the awkward position of disowning half their catalogue but still not giving us anything new to believe in. And anyway, they fail to see why nostalgia will always be such a powerful force (and a surefire clickbait strategy): Underlying it all is the gently aching fact that you can’t go back again. Just because the path you’ve committed to has proved a dead end doesn’t mean that the same deal will be waiting for you back at the crossroads.
*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.