Alternative mainstays Weezer have been busy the past few years. In 2017, Rivers Cuomo and company ventured the furthest into full-blown pop rock than they had up until that point, with the release of Pacific Daydream. And just back in January of this year, they unveiled their Teal Album, a covers record spearheaded by their rendition of Toto’s “Africa”. That cover would become one of Weezer’s most successful singles to date. Less than two months later, the band is back with their thirteenth studio record, the Black Album. For those unfamiliar with the outfit, they were behind two 90s classics, Pinkerton (1996) and their 1994 eponymous Blue Album, both garnering a significant cult following. But ever since then, Weezer has been on an inescapable plummet with the quality of their output, never coming close to what originally made them so special.
This new album starts off awkwardly. On “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, a choppy vocal from Cuomo in the first verse lends way to a downright goofy chorus flavoured with sampled backing vocals and some clunky horn work. Cuomo attempts his best Beck impersonation by injecting some Spanish lyrics, but this song lacks any of the flair that “Loser” was successful with. Thematically, like many songs on this album, Weezer seems to be directing this at their naysayers and critics. The message would be better received if it weren’t for such poor attempts at throwaway jokes; “Higher education is the key to escape, but I never learned to roll a joint.”
Following that up is “Zombie Bastards”, which like its predecessor is a punch back at nostalgic fans and critics who praise Weezer’s earliest material while fervently deriding their most contemporary output. Beginning with an acoustic ska inspired introduction, the track morphs into a perfectly radio-ready electro pop ditty. The chorus, albeit catchy, is far too safe and agreeable to truly excite. “High as a Kite”, on the other hand, is one of Weezer’s most endearing tracks in recent memory. The lovely piano ballad has Cuomo imagining a permanent escape from criticism. Cuomo is at a high point performance-wise on the heavier rock chorus – a cathartic moment and one of the few wins on the Black Album.
However, it starts to go off the rails from here. “Living in LA” is a derivative and forgettable piece of folk pop. The lyrics offer no insight other than the fact that Cuomo likes a girl and he likes LA. “Piece Of Cake” sees the band lamenting unrequited love, but it holds little weight wrapped in its overly cutesy package. The songwriting feels awfully uninspired here, one of multiples times on the record where the band relies on a “do do do” hook to fill space. The bad jokes continue with lines like “she was into me, and then she changed the dial like I’m grunge or gangsta rap.”
“I’m Just Being Honest” is one of the better crafted tracks on the album. This self-defacing rocker is smart and introspective, something that can’t be said about Weezer often these days. In contrast to the other tunes, this one doesn’t seem completely ruined by sanitised production that sucks out the personality. The chorus is a solid example of punchy alternative pop writing.
“Too Many Thoughts In My Head” comments on drug use and Cuomo’s battles with depression. An echo guitar effect looms overhead. It had potential, but the squeaky-clean production kills any attempt at psychedelia the band was attempting here. It fails at sucking in the listener and instead becomes another passable moment on the album.
“The Prince Who Wanted Everything” is an ode to the late Purple One. With obvious references such as “his Paisley bones”, this song sadly comes off as more of a novelty; it is simply too quirky for its own good. Like on previous numbers, another uninspired “do do do” hook runs prominently. This is not the tribute that Prince deserves.
“Byzantine” is heavily informed by 60s lounge pop. With its downtempo vibe and drum machines, it sounds like Stereolab going full pop. Weezer sprinkles in a few cheeky pop culture references, something they have always been particularly good at.
Truly saving the worst for last, “California Snow” is a mess of a track. Cuomo makes a strange attempt at rapping where his flow leaves much to be desired. Whether or not it’s meant to be a parody, the joke isn’t funny. They aim for a grandiose, stadium-filling anthem that ultimately falls flat. Jittery drum sounds flood the track, an ill-advised decision to implement popular hip-hop trends.
The Black Album doesn’t help Weezer get out of the rut they have been on for years now. Their downfall is so pronounced, SNL writers even felt keen to comment on it. The band recruits Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio for production help, hoping to diversify their sound. However, Sitek is only able to add an unnecessary level of gloss. Sadly, the Black Album is a mixed bag with a couple hits outshined by a lot of clear misses.