Of all the big-deal magazine reviews of Maladroit—or, more accurately, reviews of the less than two-thirds of the album included on pre-release promos—Blender‘s revealed the most, for this reason alone: Alongside the main piece ran a tiny sidebar listing frontman Rivers Cuomo’s “current listening”—Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and a live Stevie Ray Vaughan disc. No surprise that retro-formalist Cuomo would worship a guitar god like Vaughan. But Jay Hova? What does Jigga’s ego have to do with Weezer’s arena emo? Perhaps Cuomo experiences The Blueprint as I do—fully, blissfully submerged, yet emboldened. Perhaps Jay-Z breezily modulating his defensiveness, aloofness, and tendency to pander makes Cuomo think he can juggle the same contradictions.
He can’t, of course. Weezer’s best album is the one in which Cuomo simply spills his throbbing, distortion-soaked guts at the feet of a Japanese schoolgirl. Pinkerton (1996) turned Weezer’s approach—the sleek bubble-grunge novelty of their self-titled ’94 debut—on its airhead, and Cuomo’s been trying to right it ever since. The disc “only” shifted a half-million units, while revealing another side of the manboy—a side that, if memory serves, he later characterized as “sick.” Whether he meant to preserve his career, sanity, or both, Cuomo—after attending Harvard and doing God knows who else—finally emerged in ’01 with another Weezer, a/k/a the Green Album: 10 pared-down, amped-up pop-rock throwaways tepid and geeky enough to attract Saves the Day fans. Having leeched out his embarrassing confessions and the band’s crashing confidence, Cuomo basked in sales and acclaim, much of it owing to the same kind of hard-rock backlash that benefited Weezer’s first album.
Pandering—check. True, aiming to please one’s audience is usually preferable to self-indulgence. It’s just that photocopying success is self-indulgence at its worst. I’m not talking about making the same album again and again, as Sleater-Kinney does, but about standing out in the rain hoping lightning will strike twice. Maladroit picks up where the Green Album slacked off, relying on the same chunky sonics that set “Hash Pipe” apart from Weezer’s earlier, more lithe singles. If Cuomo means to recast himself as your everyday bitter romantic, this semi-ironic classic-rock strut is the perfect mold: Bulldozer riffs rear-end bulldozer riffs as he tosses off melodies just pretty enough to suggest feeling. Meanwhile, decently fancy drumming, ornamental harmonizing, and silly guitar solos cheerfully lend texture and winking personality.
Hey, beats Nickelback. But, as welcome a respite from radio’s sprawling angst as the coupling is for some, Weezer’s tight song construction (13 tracks in 34 minutes) and vague, clichéd lyrics (“only love/can ease the pain”) don’t add up to an exceptional “pop” record, memorably catchy or not. (FYI, fans of introspective rock are better off buying newish records by the Reputation, Ugly Casanova, the Naysayer, Pedro the Lion, and Engine Down.)
If kids have made Weezer into a mainstream cult, it’s because they’re drawn to whatever it is Cuomo mostly represses—namely, the idiosyncratic anger and lust that erupted on Pinkerton. Cuomo reminds me of J.D. Salinger, and not just because of their shared preoccupation with young girls. Salinger quit publishing—though not writing, he claims—and became a hermit two decades ago, when his work had spiraled too far inward. Cuomo instead surrendered to—literalized—the “little three-chord me” he struggled with on Pinkerton. And so, after the five-year lapse between that record and the Green Album, Weezer needed only a few months to write and release a baker’s dozen of new songs.
The songs, right. Less than two minutes long, “Space Rock” (as in cyberspace) kicks off with a smattering of ooo-hoos and chugs pleasantly enough into the yelped chorus, where Cuomo condemns all the trash that’s presumably talked about him online, the “lies” perpetuated on the Weezer “boards.” This bitter little bit of fluff is about as specific and open as Cuomo gets, and still all it describes is how miffed he is with what every celebrity moans about—lack of privacy and a judgmental public.
Confusing the matter, the boards get “special” thanks up front, set aside from scores of other names. What are Weezer’s adoring Web-dork fans supposed to make of this? Not much, ultimately, considering that Cuomo characterizes himself as an “American Gigolo” on track one, a borderline hysterical disclaimer in which he announces, “If you hate this”—insert flashy little guitar lick—”I can’t blame you.”
Meanwhile, the album’s second-to-last track, “Love Explosion”—which hitches its wandering verse melody to a pounding, blithe admonishment to “get your groove on”—finds Cuomo quietly throwing in yet another disclaimer, this one an impenetrable, circular defense: “All the bull that people sing/it doesn’t matter what they sling.” The album’s first single and finest example of its formula, “Dope Nose” (the title’s either nonsense or a gratuitous drug reference, like “Hash Pipe”), makes a decent case for this—”For the times/that you wanna go and/bust rhymes real slow/I’ll appear/slap you on the face and/enjoy the show”—but that’s no excuse. As the man himself admits on closing monster ballad “December,” “Only trust can/inspire/soggy lungs to/breathe fire.” Whether or not he’ll ever trust his audience again remains to be seen. Then again, who cares?