Reflections on the poptastic Rivers Cuomo.
Weezer is one of my favorite bands, and as in the case of most of my favorite bands, I like all of its eras and permutations, whereas most critics and fans latch on to one (the first) era and are frustrated or disappointed by the rest. Strangely, I got into them late in the game: around 2004 or so; I didn't like "The Sweater Song" when it came out much, as it seemed affected, too trendy (the trend being grunge), and I was put off of the album by a review that talked about Cuomo's apparently pro-Dungeons & Dragons lyrics.
Anyway, most critics like their first two albums, which were raw and displayed recognizable emotion. They displayed irony, but it was a kind that could be easily recognized as such: 90's snotty teen irony, with occasional faux hip hop lingo ("What's with these homies dissin' my girl?"), a retro Happy Days-themed video.
With their third album and most subsequent work, they started consistently singing in tune and toned down the grunge somewhat, alienating a lot of their fans, and as Cuomo has aged, he's cared even less about record-store clerk purism. The irony has also become more subtle and I would say more humble; sneering requires a self-regard that most self-reflective people outgrow. Even the self-mockery becomes less severe, and the distinction between pretending an air of frivolity and being frivolous becomes moot.
Through all of this, I see a pretty steady increase in musical competence and consistent good craftsmanship, smart (though not necessarily intellectual) lyrics, and a constant drive to keep the style fresh, such that each album comes from a slightly different stylistic direction. Yes, there's young angst on the early stuff that isn't on the later stuff, but I just can't believe that we must be forever slaves to the passions of 19 year olds in our listening tastes. Yes, there's also a matter of choosing his most commercial material as singles, to keep the band high profile enough to play its part in the culture and to keep the money and consumer interest rolling in, so you can ignore certain songs if you'd like.
Enough of my Weezer defensiveness. In "Trainwrecks," from the newly released album Hurley, we get a fat, pretty, kind of stupid song with very unsubtle lyrical irony of a type that I find particularly effective. Much of my favorite music (e.g. Big Star) involves some kind of clash between uplifting instruments and depressing lyrics: feeling good about feeling bad. Here we get lyrics glorifying self-destruction, and I would be impressed as hell if, say, Def Leppard (whose music is actually kind of similar to this) would sing this kind of thing as a post-destructive-phase-self-riff. But Cuomo is notorious for being nerdy and withdrawn, not a throw-the-hotel-TV-out-the-window kind of guy, though artist types can always cast their emotional instability as grandly self-destructive.
What makes the song work, though, is the sincere, straight-faced delivery of this rock and roll hymn, with just enough idiosyncrasy in the arrangement (e.g. the fluttery synth effect in the intro, trailing into the slightest hint of techno, where they could have gone with a straight church organ or something) to engage the frontal lobes.
My overall theory of pop music is that what we feeling creatures really latch on to are simple, visceral elements: the big beat, pretty major chords and plaintive minor chords, sparkly sonic effects, the power of a voice. What slots on top of that is fashion and idiosyncrasy: I most appreciate music that whose lyrics and delivery reflect my temperament, my self image, my desires. But that latter stuff is to some degree malleable and I'll argue shallow. You can get past the strangeness of a musician's personality and so appreciate a band that you used to loathe, but you can't put power into a song that isn't there.
Cuomo is one who understands this, I think, and who personally enjoys music on this mostly non-intellectual level, who can enjoy the beautiful as beautiful without having to consistently ugly it up, and this is exactly what his critics are objecting to when they dismiss Weezer's later work as pop fluff or maddeningly lazy or just bizarre. My position, as always, is that there's a lot of aesthetic enjoyment to be had out there, and you shouldn't let your uptightness get in the way of figuring out where the artist is coming from and why he or she would want to make that noise again and again and numerous concerts and for hours and hours in a studio to get it right.