There are two Weezers: the first is the legendary alternative rock band with universally acclaimed landmark releases such as the genre-defining Blue Album and Pinkerton. These classics managed to tactfully combine the catchiest pop melodies with an edgier embrace of noise and angsty lyricism. The other, unfortunately, is characterized by a painful mediocrity, occasionally supplemented by abrasively immature lyricism. Their output in the latter half of the 2000s (Raditude, in particular) seemed to represent an all-time low and could have been the band’s demise. Since then, though, Weezer have remained musically prolific.
In the last five years, Weezer have not strayed from the polarity that has defined most of their discography. The universally acclaimed White Album in 2016 was followed up with critical duds, 2017’s Pacific Daydream and, two years later, the Black Album. There was even an awkward covers record in between.
For the most part, however, Weezer’s releases since the 90s have maintained some stylistic consistency, with the same signature ‘Power Pop’. The release of the first single from the delayed album Van Weezer, a tribute to the band’s pop-metal influences, changed this.
OK Human, recorded during the summer of 2020, represents such a deviation. Weezer has always referenced the catchy melodies of the Beach Boys and The Beatles as a key influence in their music; but in OK Human, that influence is elevated to another level. The band’s signature electric-guitar centric instrumentation and loud power chords is replaced with straight-up baroque instrumentation with a full 38-piece orchestra. Beyond the obvious sonic differences in this approach, the band seems to have reflected certain themes present in the album; they even stated on Twitter that “OK Human was made at a time when humans-playing-instruments was a thing of the past. All we could do is look back on ancient times when humans really mattered and when the dark tech-takeover fantasy didn’t exist.” The album title also plays into similar themes, referencing Radiohead’s OK Computer.
The opener and lead single, “All My Favorite Songs”, released a week prior signalled some cause for optimism. The lyrics are typically emblematic of teenage angst, “I love parties, but I don’t go. Then I feel bad when I stay home.” The chorus itself catchily laments the contradictions present in the speaker’s life: fundamentally, that “Everything that feels good is bad.” This culminates in great uncertainty and a lost sense of direction. While the subject-matter evidently is nothing new for Weezer, the songwriting built around delicate strings certainly is. It’s an effective combination, with the lush instrumentation complementing the moodiness of lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s vocals.
The second track, “Aloo Gobi”, employs even grander instrumentation, which is almost jarring at first. The impeccable arrangements and mixing, however, prevent this from seeming too gimmicky. The chorus is anthemic, while the subject matter is uncharacteristically mature. Cuomo ponders over the monotony that has taken over his life. This is something that seems increasingly poignant in the age of lockdowns and social restrictions.
Next, “Grapes of Wrath”, a relatively lighthearted tribute to Audible audiobooks, alludes to the Steinbeck novel in its chorus. The instrumentation maintains the grandiose arrangements from the previous tracks, presented with a more dramatic chord progression. This is followed by “Numbers”, an initially more stripped back and introspective ballad about feelings of personal inadequacy. As the almost Radiohead-esque chorus hits, elaborate strings emerge, and Cuomo employs his falsetto. The track builds up seemingly to an end, before a final stunning iteration of the chorus hits.
While the remainder of the album is perhaps not as memorable as the opening tracks, there is still a consistent quality and a considerable amount of highlights. “Playing My Piano” is a dramatic ballad about immersing oneself in a passion. “Here Comes the Rain” is a motivational anthem that tributes The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”. The closer, “La Brea Tar Pits” also stands out, with subtler instrumentation, and Cuomo using the California landmark to ponder mortality. Throughout OK Human, the transitions between tracks are also worth commending.
Ultimately, the album is about the human experience: the joys and monotonies; the passions and anxieties; the connection and solitude. OK Human represents a successful foray for the band from the formula they have set for decades. The instrumentation is lush and compliments Weezer’s typical songwriting styles, as well as their occasional attempts at greater maturity. The chorus melodies are catchy as ever, and Cuomo’s vocal performances memorable. Looking forward, it is undeniably difficult to predict the quality of any releases from Weezer. However, given the precedent set here, there is reason to remain cautiously optimistic.
Image credit: micadrew via Flickr & Creative Commons.