If you asked me 25 years ago to identify Weezer’s most bankable quality, I probably would have gushed about Rivers Cuomo being one of the great guitar players of the alt-rock ’90s, both in terms of tart four-chord riffs that hold your brain hostage and solos that make your heart explode. It’s true that he’s great at that stuff, but that’s not the only thing keeping Weezer afloat. It’s also a certain playfulness and a lack of shame. From “What’s with these homies dissing my girl?” through last year’s tongue-in-cheek covers of “Africa” and “Rosanna” by the Los Angeles classic rockers Toto, Weezer has been an exercise in getting the bespectacled Rivers to lighten up and in baiting the sect of day-one fans who would love nothing so much as to see his band relive the nerd rage of its youth in perpetuity to either come off it or buzz off. They do whatever they want now, and that seems to make people furious. If you appreciate a good, subtle troll, you have to respect it.
I’ve seen Weezer live twice, once on the Maladroit tour and once at Meadows Festival in 2017. The Meadows set was an eye-opener because I thought that a crowd that had come to see a headlining Red Hot Chili Peppers set later in the evening would have popped for the old stuff the most and found that the audience was split between people in their 30s taking a nostalgia trip to “Say It Ain’t So” and people in their 20s singing along to “Beverly Hills” and “Pork and Beans” and the like. Weezer stuck in the rock-and-roll mainstream long enough to touch two different generations; to suggest that they belong to one ignores the fierce fandom of the other. Sometimes it feels like the band is the only party aware of this. You can hear them grappling with the weight of expectations from time to time. Everything Will Be Alright in the End’s “Back to the Shack” and “Eulogy for a Rock Band” muse about a rock band in its twilight: “We’ll never forget the jams you made / Don’t let ‘em fade / It’s time that we laid you in your grave.”
It’s apparent in the last few months of machinations that Rivers Cuomo has different plans for his band. The “Africa” cover is Weezer’s first Hot 100 hit in a decade. This week’s surprise self-titled covers album is a no-brainer success insofar as it keeps the band’s buzz warm in the months before the release of the forthcoming Black Album. The Teal Album is a riot, the kind of latter-day throwaway turned fluke hit that Pearl Jam enjoyed when a 1998 sound-check recording of Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” became the biggest chart hit of the band’s career. It doesn’t sound deeply considered; the track list reads like the repertoire of a band that works weddings and private events. Teal is a play on the idea of the washed-up rock star taking a swan dive into the nostalgia circuit. If you don’t know that Weezer has been holed up with Dave Sitek and Rami Yacoub smashing their back catalogue to bits on an outrageous batch of dance-pop and party-rock anthems, the covers might infuriate you. If you’ve heard “Can’t Knock the Hustle” and “Zombie Bastards” (and tracked the fan-forum suspicion that the latter song’s undead metaphor is a joke about the persistence of its own fandom), you see crafty marketing, and you see it working well.
The performances here are sharp. Say what you will about the writing, but Weezer is a band of people who play their instruments rather well. They don’t try anything, and they don’t break anything. Teal reproduces Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” with an exactness that can only come from years of worship. (People forget Rivers cut his teeth on hard rock and metal. This is not his first bout of Tommy Iommi cosplay.) The covers of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and TLC’s “No Scrubs” are both self-aware nerd karaoke — where the joke is that the dude doesn’t seem like the type to excel at re-creating sweeping, soulful ad libs, when he absolutely is — and a reminder of these musicians’ chops. The fun in listening to Teal, where it can be found, is in seeing just how far these guys are willing to go in faithfully re-creating sounds that seem outside their wheelhouse, and watching them hit all the notes.
The middle section of Teal, where Weezer posts up formidable renditions of rock and metal classics that seem crucial to their own development, is where the concept begins to come together. Their “Mr. Blue Sky” absolutely crushes. They do justice to the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” You wish the band used this exercise to excavate its roots, the way great covers albums of the past lay themselves out as road maps to the performers’ own musical tics. The most illuminating collections of other people’s songs — see: David Bowie’s Pin Ups, Metallica’s Garage Inc, the first half of the Deftones’ B-Sides and Rarities, the bits of Drake’s So Far Gone where he repurposes old rap and R&B songs — tell the story of an artist’s musical awakening through the records that tripped it off. Teal’s focus on joke covers of big ’80s hits feels like a missed opportunity to teach the listener more about the band’s beginnings. But the purpose of the endeavor isn’t to teach us about the band. It’s to keep us talking about the band. And here we are. Bravo.