Weezer - Maladroit
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I would hope that in the wake of the truly awful Make Believe album Weezer fans would begin to turn a kinder ear towards its predecessor, but Maladroit stood on its own long before “Beverly Hills” and “We Are All On Drugs” hit. Until recently the band had actually been getting better with each release, and Maladroit stands, for now, as their peak.
Weezer Mk 2 actually mirrored the progress of the original band closely at first. Both the Blue and Green self-titled albums are focused more on sound than on content, and both did so well enough that only truly humourless rock fans minded that the songs were about celebrity look-alikes, geek hangouts, vacations, and surfing alongside the normal romantic angst (after all, such quotidian concerns have been the stuff of pop music forever). The latter was even more opaque than the former, but this was more than compensated for by the fact that the band's ability to hit that elusive modern rock/alternative/whatever sweet spot that leads to instant devotion (to this today I cannot listen without singing along by the last three or four songs) had only sharpened with experience. The Blue album still gets defended more often, both because of the strong current of nostalgia it tends to exist within and arguably because it's the Weezer album where it is the easiest to ignore the fact that Rivers Cuomo has problems. Taken strictly on face value, its Green counterpart was stronger and sharper.
Pinkerton in retrospect is a little disquieting, although at the time most of us who were listening to it, really listening to it, were in high school—so it sounded normal. More worrying was Cuomo's near-total retreat in the face of bad press—and the subsequent, almost pathological distance of the otherwise wonderful Green album. By Maladroit Cuomo was growing a Howard Hughes beard, living in isolation and only really communicating with people via the Internet. The Internet, people. That's not healthy.
It'd be nice to say that, in addition to building on the greatly improved songwriting of the second Weezer, Maladroit marks the first album where you can tell Cuomo is improving, or that he is able to stop basing so much of his evident self-image on others. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Just as the relatively raw Pinkerton followed once Rivers' confidence had been boosted by the surprise success of their debut, Maladroit features a return to the confused confessional style of that album after a successful but more guarded record. And once again those confessions make it pretty clear that Cuomo needs to stop listening to his own press so much.
I mean, “American Gigolo” starts off the album with one of the most concise expressions in pop music of how the mixed adoration and venom of fame can fuck with your head: “If you want me / You can't have me / Because you have to / Understand me.” It only gets more twisted when you check the printed lyrics and find that the last two lines are replaced with “Please accept me.”
All of which only makes it more remarkable that Maladroit holds up so much better than Weezer's other albums. One of the things Cuomo seemingly left behind when he started meditating for days at a time was his ability to write tight, hook-laden guitar songs on which to hang his increasingly bizarre and immature lyrics. “Dope Nose” and “Keep Fishing” were fine singles, but what's particularly amazing about the thirteen songs here is their consistency. “Take Control” alone should have hit the charts for the way it haltingly takes to the air and soars briefly during the choruses. “Love Explosion” is one of the few latter-day Weezer songs to lift its gaze from Cuomo's navel with a gloriously joyous refrain. “Slob” and “Slave” are both pretty telling in their lyrics, but Cuomo's hoarse roar (he sounds like he's yelling the vocals for “Slob” from down the hall) and the sheer drive of the music more than compensates.
And although Weezer are still sticking within the bounds of loud, fast guitar rock, Maladroit sees them expanding their sound in surprising ways. “December” closes the album with a fuzzy sound that hews startlingly close to elements of 50's rock, all doo-wop backing vocals and drum rolls. “Possibilities” and “Fall Together,” to paraphrase Mark Twain, take all pop punk pretenders kindly and forgivingly by the hand and leads them to a quiet place to kill them while “Burndt Jamb” morphs back and forth from sunny jangle to metallic soloing. Even “Dope Nose” boasts far better guitars than Weezer's older work.
And that's one of the more amazing things about this record: It's a “guitar album” stuffed full of little background parts that other bands would turn into the centerpiece of songs, but it zips through everything in thirty-three minutes. Some of the tracks, particularly “Burndt Jamb,” “Space Rock,” and “Death And Destruction” which are all clustered towards the center of the program, seem at first to be fragments rather than songs, but after a few listens to acclimatize yourself it becomes clear that they're the closest Weezer will ever get to Wire. They establish a mood or idea and move on without wallowing. Given how many demos were posted on Weezer's website before this album was released, most of which were fine songs but nevertheless didn't make the cut, even those slighter selections were clearly included for a reason. Especially in the context of those other tracks Maladroit feels carefully crafted. “Death And Destruction” would make an awful single, but as a break after “Take Control” it works.
There are, to be fair, some serious debits against Maladroit (and not just the hideous cover art). Although Cuomo's vocal performances are surprisingly strong and go a fair distance towards redeeming the lyrics, those lyrics make the record simultaneously callow and disturbing. Which depending on what you look for in your rock music might not be a bad thing. It's the most mannered album Weezer have ever made—a more Weezer album than their others in the way that The Royal Tenenbaums was a more Wes Anderson film than Rushmore. Which is not, sadly, why it's so wonderful; the record's focus on Rivers Cuomo's neuroses hold it back from being as good as it can be. Rather it's a testament to this band's talent that this brief patchwork of an album sounds better than a hundred less queasily self-obsessed others.