Thirty years ago, shortly after Kurt Cobain sold the Pixies to the masses by marrying them with Led Zeppelin, a kid named Rivers Cuomo showed up to make bank on the equally subversive revelation that alt-rock’s poker-faced affliction could go just fine with the spit-polished pump of the Eighties arena-rock that Cobain and his grousing, punk-liking kin were supposed to have vanquished.
Cuomo understood that the hair-metal-to-grunge shift was less a seismic cultural tremor than a great communal shoulder shrug: One day Warrant was on MTV, then the next day Alice in Chains was, and the world adjusted accordingly. It’s an insight that has proved enduring. For all of Cuomo’s vaunted emotional and social detachment, the man got people. As more recent gestures like his beloved cover of Toto’s “Africa” continue to show, he still pretty much does.
Weezer’s 15th album is a tribute to their Eighties metal “roots,” scheduled for release last year, then shelved as Cuomo used his quarantine downtime to record the somewhat less-ironic-than-usual OK Human. “Summertime/I press rewind and go back to a simpler place,” Cumo sings on “I Need Some of That,” before going on to reminisce about listening to Aerosmith and riding his 10-speed. Van Weezer has what you’d expect from such a project: “End of the Game” opens by aping Eddie Van Halen fretwork; “1 More Hit” starts off with Metallica riffs; “Blue Dream” is a straight homage to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”
Most of these sonic and lyrical allusions immediately give way to the kind of crisp, automatically catchy power-pop you’d hear on any Weezer album. But that isn’t a betrayal of the metal-love theme, just Cuomo showing us how hard rock fits in with the Beach Boys, the Cars, and Loverboy in the morass of music from that era. Unsurprisingly, it’s the bright, smiling, spandex-y pop side of metal he loves, not the macho misanthrope side — there’s a reason the record is called Van Weezer, not Weezer Bloody Weezer. That sensitivity comes through in songs like “Hero,” in which triumphal arena flash gives way to an anthem of vulnerability and aloneness, as well as the closing acoustic ballad, “Precious Metal Girl,” an ode to a rock chick who isn’t some video vixen teen-boy fantasy but a “best friend in the world.”
The album’s finest hook gets tied to its most charming sentiment on “Sheila Can Do It,” probably the only tune here memorable enough to make it into the canon of great Weezer songs. Cuomo rhapsodizes about how seeing Sheila go out to take on the night in her jeans so tight inspires him to set aside his watered-down heart and get out there too. “She looks like she’s having fun/And I don’t see the problem with that,” he sings. A little context from Sheila here might be helpful, but his point is still well-taken. Suddenly, a record that could’ve been about cheap nostalgia becomes a record about sweet memory and real empathy. And I don’t see no problem with that, either.