Rivers Runs Dry

Weezer's sullen front man trades good songwriting for meditation. Such a pity, indeed.

In 1996, Pinkerton was an utter failure. Rolling Stone dismissed the lyrics to Weezer's sophomore album as "juvenile" and "aimless" and the music as "corny." Copyright issues with the cover art forced Geffen Records to limit the album's promotion. Meanwhile, radio and MTV didn't give the raw, plaintive rock songs a fair shake, and even though word of mouth eventually helped the album become a fan favorite, Pinkerton's quick fall into obscurity has been a thorn in Rivers Cuomo's sullen, lovelorn paw ever since.

So it's strange that Make Believe--a juvenile, corny flop and the worst of Weezer's post-Pinkerton albums--is enjoying the immediate success so long denied their emo masterpiece. Geffen is promoting the hell out of Make Believe. Joan Jett rip-off "Beverly Hills" currently holds the No. 2 spot on Billboard's rock radio charts. Rolling Stone has shoved its tongue firmly up singer Cuomo's asshole, even referring to Pinkerton as a benchmark for the new album's quality. Forgotten so soon, RS?

But not everyone is falling for the hype. Sure, the album's selling, but for every fan singing along to "Beverly Hills," 20 more are bashing the dull, dumb album on Web sites and blogs. Who can blame them? This album was supposed to be better. Much better.

Weezer's Make Believe was supposed to cheer up the band's longtime emo fans after the disappointment of Green and Maladroit. Keep crying, kids.
Weezer's Make Believe was supposed to cheer up the band's longtime emo fans after the disappointment of Green and Maladroit. Keep crying, kids.

After all, the years following the release of disappointments Green and Maladroit hinted at a masterful follow-up. Emo-crazed teens have spent nearly a decade praying for a Weezer release to rival Pinkerton, or even the band's self-titled debut, but in 2002, fans had more than wishful thinking on their side--they had a 23-song demo session that was witty, introspective and experimental.

The MP3s, likely leaked by the Internet-savvy band, include more than a few Green-era rehashes, but given the rough nature of these studio experiments, the number of potential singles is pretty impressive. "Fontana"'s stair-step guitar riff, with piano swells beneath the licks, gives way to a new-wave blast during choruses, and Cuomo's shout-alongs guide the dizzying song into a booming climax. "Hey Domingo" has summertime fun written all over it, thanks to a subtle reggae twist on classic rock. Hell, "Mad Kow" is almost Pinkerton-ready: Lyrics express sorrow without the sappiness of typical emo, and the song structure finally bucks the verse-chorus formula Cuomo did to death on Green and Maladroit.

The demo pool's best songs clock in at about half an hour of material, but rather than build on that solid base during the next three years, Cuomo discarded the entire session, leaving both good and bad songs behind. Actually, the way he tells it, Cuomo discarded just about everything in his life on the way to Make Believe. Except for his computer, that is.

Summer 2004 saw Cuomo hopping on the MySpace bandwagon, as he joined the teen-friendly networking Web site to post a few songs and blogs. Cuomo may as well have posted pictures of his dog, but his 2,000-word essay, a copy of his readmission request to Harvard, was juicy enough to nab the attention of news outlets like the Village Voice and MTV.com. The story, which has since been deleted from the site, chronicles every move he made since the self-described "failure" of 1996. He opens with the post-Pinkertonisolation he endured for two and a half years: Cuomo hiding at home, painting his walls black and unplugging his phone in order to "purge myself of all weakness" and focus on the songwriting ability he thought he'd lost.

After a failed attempt in 1999 to re-enter Harvard, he flipped his shit and left the bedroom to, well, conquer the world. With Nietzsche as his inspiration, Cuomo turned band manager and proceeded to pump out countless tunes and tours. He also pissed off fans, friends and business contacts alike, and the pressure drove Cuomo back into solitary confinement.

This time, though, he had famed producer Rick Rubin in his corner. Serving as mentor, Rubin encouraged the hermited Cuomo to sell off worldly possessions, take up meditation and celibacy and begin a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Proclaiming himself an atheist, Cuomo says he made sense of newfound spiritual texts by changing any use of the word "God" into "musical creativity"--essentially, Cuomo prayed to Pinkerton. The essay ends with Cuomo proclaiming a newfound sense of balance, thanks to improved relationships, volunteer work and creative contentment.

Fans bought it. And why shouldn't they? Now that Cuomo is finally at peace with his demons--personal and musical--Weezer can begin anew, making songs that are even better than their demos hinted at, right? Right?

But Make Believe is nowhere near the return to glory that rags like Rolling Stone have claimed. The guitars still dwell in the cold, machine-like Green and Maladroit days, aside from a Brit-pop blast in "This Is Such a Pity" and catchy, organ-driven riffs in "My Best Friend." But even these brief sonic joys are trampled by the worst lyrics this side of a Kidz Bop compilation.

Cuomo's words are front and center in the mix, which means every lame rhyme sticks out. "Sad" and "bad," "hero" and "zero," "school" and "cool"--the stupidity never ends, but even worse are the stories he's trying to tell. On "Hold Me," Cuomo opens with a superficial description of his love: "You are taller than a mountain, deeper than a sea," and then screams the song title as a demand. Even worse is "We Are All on Drugs," whose pseudo-idealism reeks of an un-hip Truth.com commercial. There's no emotional depth in these tales--where's the worldly understanding so hard-won after all those spiritual studies?

In the end, the disappointment shouldn't be a surprise. Make Believe proves good music was what made Cuomo so unhappy in the first place. His greatest songs were his most conflicted efforts, and he was championed for witty, convoluted takes on nerdiness and young love. Now, post-Rubin and post-meditation, Cuomo is his own champion. He has sacrificed his best musical days to achieve inner peace. Still, if inner peace sounds anything like "Beverly Hills," Weezer fans should swear off meditation--for life.

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