Keep Your Self Alive


Rob Thomas and Rivers Cuomo are gangsters of self-love. During the mid ’90s, when a booming peacetime economy meant we could all listen to white guys whine on the radio without needing a reason why, the two were brothers from a different mother of invention: Thomas led Matchbox Twenty, who made tidy thinking-man’s rock for culturally endangered fratpeople; Cuomo led Weezer, who made passive-aggressive alt-rock for culturally oblivious indie folk. Both men gave adenoidal voice to white-male narcissism, raging against the ruthless efficiency of the female machine. But what they really couldn’t hack was the creeping suspicion that we were losing interest in their meticulously cultivated chamber dramas—that a sprawling nation of black rappers and brown immigrants and indigo girls was on its way to supplanting their God-given Billboard sovereignty.

So they fought back by constructing pillars of proudly blinkered self-involvement so high no one could topple them, not even Meshell Ndegeocello. Thomas felt entitled to push you around and take you for granted, and wished the real world would just stop hassling him; Cuomo wanted a girl who’d laugh for no one else, and solicited half-Japanese ladies capable of keeping his fingernails clean. The gambit worked— Matchbox outlasted peers like the Verve Pipe and Tonic, while Cuomo earned the right to enroll undergrad at Harvard—but the real world, it came hassling anyway. On their latest albums, these two extravagant egoists, evidently worried about wrecking themselves on the shoals of futility, check themselves instead: Something to Be, Thomas’s solo debut, and Make Believe, Weezer’s fifth full-length, are the finest examples of self-abnegating apology-rock you’ll hear all year.

Thomas has been setting up his inevitable solo career since 1999, when he ditched the Matchbox boys to sample la vida loca on Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. Musically, “Smooth” ‘s diaphanous groove predicted the stylistic awakening M20 would experience between the lumpen post-grunge of “Push,” the band’s first hit, and the lithe dance-rock of “Disease,” its finest. Yet philosophically, the single didn’t reveal much growth: “Gimme your heart, make it real, or else forget about it,” Thomas demanded, conjuring R. Lee Ermey in an Alex P. Keaton suit. Six years later, the singer’s conscience has caught up with his mojo; now he offers to hold you while you’re falling apart, admits he needs help getting back on track, even tells the local problem girl she’s no problem at all.

Thomas sells the supplication, too. M20’s omnipresent alt-rock guitars made Thomas’s job easier because they took up space he didn’t have to; here, he sings over greasy keys and syncopated drums and bass by Dr. Dre sideman Mike Elizondo. The music is busy but open, so you hear Thomas grasp and choke; you hear him exerting himself like the soul man Santana convinced him he could be. When the singer removed one shirt to reveal another sweat-dappled one onstage at Irving Plaza in April, he seemed proud of the accomplishment.

Cuomo offered no such perspiratory evidence at Roseland May 11. From first song to last, the frontman stood woodenly behind his center-stage mic, methodically strumming his guitar, seemingly bummed that his fans still don’t get that “No One Else” wasn’t a joke. Listen while you cruise eHarmony and Make Believe sounds similarly affectless: Like all post-Pinkerton Weezer, the album trades whatever earned the band their reputation as proto-emo visionaries for a clean-buzzing power-chord surge whose surface sheen defies in-depth exploration. Explore, though, and you get a glimpse of Cuomo lying naked on the floor, atoning for past transgressions: “You’re my best friend, and I love you”; “We should give all our love to each other”; “I have many fears about my greed.” The disc hits its apex in the goosebump-raising “Pardon Me,” where Cuomo admits, “I know that I can be the meanest person in the world,” while Rick Rubinized guitars grind plangently. In alt-rock terms, this is basically Jimmy Swaggart wrecking his makeup before millions. Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive him?