The Long Read: Weezer - The Blue Album
Words by Evan Musgrave
THE LONG READ DELVES INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND THOSE CLASSIC RECORDS. WITHOUT A FURTHER ADO...
Here, Evan Musgrave breaks down the cultural significance of Weezer's hard-hitting debut, The Blue Album. This is a record that's undoubtedly deserving of its widespread recognition as one of the most influential full-lengths of the 1990s.
There’s something uniquely curious about listening to an album that took several years to achieve widespread critical support and which now has come full circle to become considered an accepted watershed moment. With the knowledge of Weezer’s self-titled debut album’s (commonly referred to as The Blue Album) backstory in mind, one may feel perhaps unfairly well equipped in approaching listening to it, conscious of the fact that it’s a verified once-hidden gem and now roundly considered a highly influential album. If you’re not aware of the work’s complicated history, the listening experience can instill an enlivening vindication of the intuition of your listening ear.
The Blue Album spent a notable part of its early existence panned by many alternative rock fans and critics. Released a month after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, a fair point can be made that a band like Weezer would never have been propelled into a major deal to release a work like The Blue Album, if it hadn’t been for the improbable fame of the likes of Cobain. This is really a moot point however. It’s what Weezer did with this sudden interest in their sound that defines them as music artists. Twenty one years on, still going strong with ten albums under their belt, a distinctive signature image beloved by fans, sold out gigs in every corner of the globe and a treasured position of being crucially influential to a gamut of emo and pop punk acts; there’s nothing flukey or trivial about Weezer. Alongside the band’s sophomore release, Pinkerton, their debut LP represents Weezer’s significant position in an era when the established rock personality was being fantastically redefined – in came the everyman front man who expressed alienation through chosen moments of theatricality, the stripped down aesthetic and media shy bands who appeared a world apart from the pomp of 80s acts pissed off kids at the arse end of Reagan’s vision for the world. Adorned in flannel yet lacking the cultural cachet to be considered part of the slacker movement, equally partial to guttural screams as to attempts at Beach Boy-esque harmonies, referencers of elements of pop culture but not exactly in a critical manner, Weezer’s first album emerged as a conundrum that many just weren’t willing to sink their teeth into. This is an album that hasn’t just passed the test of time, but has cosied up to time, growing in stature as the years pass, living a myriad subsequent lives in the hearts and minds of those it affects. Like a slow-blooming orchid, it seems absurd that someone might have once been put off by the weird tangle of its roots.
'My Name is Jonas' is a raucous and apt opening track. The sound mirrors Weezer’s general appeal - rebellious yet polite; it's presented in such a manner as to not be contradictory but rather a defiant act of self-expression. Heavily distorted guitar touches almost every second of the song’s three and a half minutes, but the sound is undeniably clear and crisp, full-bodied and warm, even. The song has no chorus, it’s as simple and as complex as being a song melded around pure, driving melody. It opens and closes with a finger lickin’ good plucked acoustic guitar line and the intervening body of the song sounds peculiarly similar to 70s hair metal. Rivers Cuomo’s vocals sound like a bionic mouse who has grown to a bizarrely monstrous size for the purposes of this performance, a bit like the alien characters in Space Jam. Despite everything going on behind it, his voice commands your attention with every syllable he hollers. Weezer are either comfortable or naive enough to fully embrace their contraditcions. Indeed this type of "contrdictory sound", that of a band having an uncanny knack for delivering pop hooks alongside an abrasive assault of noise isn’t a novel approach - The Ramones, for example, combined surf pop with unabashed punk to great effect – but Weezer’s unique image makes their artistic message a striking and novel contradiction. I struggle to think of a more fitting album cover. No frills on these nicely-pressed shirts. Their facial expressions are completely neutral, bassist Matt Sharp’s stance even makes his seem slightly apologetic. The background is a single colour. The band name is edged up to the corner in plain script, itself seeming somewhat apologetic for the fact that it has to appear on the cover. This is a "music speaks for itself" cover if there ever was one.
The second track, 'No One Else', is built around the band’s signature rough-cut melodic sound, even arguably going a bit further and feeling like a sort of impossibly tuneful lawnmower. However it appears rather anomalous in the context of the album; the tone of the protagonist is steeped in an uncharacteristically cocksure tone compared to the open vulnerability expressed in most of the rest of the album. Overcompensating jealousy, bitterness and resentment of not being in control of a relationship drip from every line in the song. Since the tone is so jarring it leads one to read this as Cuomo singing from another’s perspective. “I want a girl who laughs for no-one else / when I’m away she puts her make up on the shelf” - the words are morally objectionable, pathetic, twisted, and quite possibly relatable. As a male it’s tempting to listen to this in a distanced fashion, enjoying it as a clever characterisation of a jealous, bitter type of guy, and not admitting that almost every guy ends up experiencing the insecurity-driven desire for his girl to laugh for no-one else at some stage. The song has the potential to strike a harrowing pang of familiarity into the listener.
'The World Has Turned and Left Me Here' seems like the flipside to the controversy-seeking attitude of the narrator in 'No One Else'. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. It captures the post-breakup mentality with a prosaic accuracy and attention to timing that puts Cuomo up there with the best:
"The world has turned and left me here/
Just where I was before you appeared/
And in your place, an empty space/
Has filled the void behind my face"
Whether it’s read as the full weight of justice falling on the sexist protagonist of the previous track, or maybe a momentary humanising perspective on the self-inflicted misery of this massive cunt, or maybe just voiced by a separate narrator and quite simply a break up song whose melody and hard-hitting truths provide a blinding moment of catharsis… it’s an expertly written alternative rock song and another means to wonder how the band suffered so badly from the pen of critics during their early days.
And this is only the third track. A lot can be written about 'Buddy Holly', but in the interests of keeping this at a readable length, I’ll just say that it’s an incredibly sweet and fun song about romance.
'Undone – The Sweater Song' deserves attention. Generally considered to be one of, if not the, best song in the band’s catalogue. Referring to a song’s “timeless appeal” is a massive journalistic cliche, especially as this song features dialogue which feels distinctly early to mid 90s, but, fuck it, it’s a timeless classic. Hearing Cuomo and the band harmonise over the line “If you want to destroy my sweater / hold this thread as I walk away” I know will personally never, ever get old. It’s a song made all the more charming by the self-consciously goofy video directed by Spike Jonze (one of his first directorial attempts), which features band members playing on a plain set backed by a blue wall, messing around with their instruments in slow motion and out of sync with the music while a pack of dogs invade the set. The video, like “Buddy Holly”, received heavy airplay on MTV and was a crucial element in the band’s rise from the underground gig circuit to touring with the giants of the world of alternative rock during probably the genre’s most visible period at the top of the charts.
The songs here are honest and plain-spoken and, in the context of rock music in the United States at the time, trail-blazing in their emotional honesty, paving the way for subsequent waves of emo acts. Indeed grunge and metal, two other prominent rock genres at the time of The Blue Album’s release, often deal so heavily in morbid, abstract lyrical approaches, be it the macho maximalism of metal or the gritty outsider lyricism and ennui of grunge. It took a band like Weezer to usher in a trend of heightened emotional language that speaks directly to the type of thoughts so many people actually have. Weezer don’t try to coerce you into complicating your process of interpreting their lyrics; their words are direct but can also be read on several levels. They don’t quite hand it to you on a plate, but perhaps serve up what can be considered an arresting fusion of hard and soft rock tendencies with no filler tracks. Bon appetit.
Their best songs on this album are soaring, extended pieces of alternative rock music that don’t really try to grow in complexity but persist in developing waves and become mesmerising through their persistent melody. They breed reliability and familiarity - rather like the impression you get of the band members: reliable guys, guys who would show up to Sunday lunch and know to compliment you on your new gazebo – you get sucked into their world. The Blue Album an incredibly coherent ten song musical text.
Several songs on the album – 'Undone', 'Say It Ain’t So', 'In The Garage', and 'Only In Dreams' follow this format of a steady, slow build that ends up verging into something possibly more dramatic than you’d expect. Shifting from soft verses to loud chorus and more often than not with some doo wop break or a brief, twizzling guitar solo, harmonies on harmonies, they all build up to lung-busting, string-snapping crescendos. Perhaps no other song typifies this approach better than 'Say It Ain’t So'. Often referred to as an early emo song, despite the verses revolving around a reggae-type guitar scratch beat. The lyrical content and delivery are indeed highly emotional; Cuomo reflects on the sensation of fear that his step father will, like his father, end up leaving the house, upon finding a bottle of alcohol in the fridge which echoes the past. He then later in the song connects it to his own drinking, singing in wild desperation, displaying the now familiar emo tendency to conspicuously scream one’s vulnerabilities - “Like father, step-father / The son is drowning in the flood”. The sudden transitions from gentle, intimate verse to thundering chorus create tension and suspense which is finally released around the 2:38 mark when the chorus melody continues where it previously would have relented, bringing the listener into the most pointedly pained reflection on the family issues being evoked in the song. The latter half of this song remains possibly the band’s finest moment. Rolling Stone ranked it #72 on its '100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time’ list. Not that that really means anything, except that it’s an exceptionally impressive rock song.
Continuing this raw honesty is 'In The Garage' - a wholesome song about Cuomo’s favourite retreat from the big bad world. I’ve always thought that the lead singer Rivers Cuomo seemed like a sort of 90s version of Eric from The 70s Show, and this song evokes this association most strongly. For both characters, their endearing geekiness make them loveable and relatable figures. Indeed, Cuomo seems like a representative of the Eric Formans of the world. His brilliance as a songwriter makes being an outsider seem human. Weezer feel revolutionary because they have an undeniably appealing way of describing being uncool.
The self scrutiny evident in 'In The Garage' feels ostensibly cringeworthy yet the root factor here in the song is the braveness of the singer. We gain an entry into his soul which is achieved not by giving some raw detail of a breakup or, say, a clever analogy for depression, but through listing material items that feature in his garage as well as an immensely honest way of wording things: “I’ve got posters on the wall / My favourite rock group Kiss”. It’s cringiness as an art form, in a sense. “I play this stupid song", “I write these stupid words / And I love everyone / Waiting there for me / Yes, I do”, Cuomo runs through one heartwarming, self-deprecating line after another. It ends with him peculiarly bellowing “no-one hears me sing this song”, an obviously untrue statement given it’s placed on a major label release, but he’s really singing on behalf of the disenfranchised: the scrawny kid who loves metal but can’t fit in with the macho crowd being just one type of high school awkwardness. “In the garage, I feel safe / No-one laughs about my ways” - is this not a scarier thing to write about than the type of stuff an actual metal band might pen? So often in metal, pain and confusion are described in such abstract terms, or the songwriting verges into purely figurative and theatrical terms; songs about devil worship, etc. What’s spookier, this, or a kid with a wack haircut singing about his special place? The charming insecurity and the disarming sincerity of The Blue Album, make it a bold piece of art. Not many people can pull this off while playing music this heavy.
It’s this willingness to hold up a microscope to the seemingly trivial elements of their everyday experience that means The Blue Album is such an impressive and left-field LP in the context of the time of its release. Having something like a five minute epic about destroying a sweater doesn’t relegate the band to the novelty figures - a box so many wished to put them in when they first emerged – but rather places them firmly in the pantheon of honest, emotional rock music. Fresh-faced and with a fresh attitude to music, their debut work is a landmark text in a series of avowedly weird and awkward looking bands who helped push popular rock music to new extremes of expression, with the likes of Devo and The Pixies included in this coterie. The Internet era has seen more and more music artists emerging with hard to place sounds and peculiar combinations of influences, artists with experimental approaches to shaping sound to create bespoke and highly-personal artistic visions with little regard to the existing conventions. We’re more ready to accept and attempt to parse modern day conundrums, but that’s thanks to the likes of the early days of Weezer.