For those of us who came up in the mid 90s, there are two great pop music mysteries that have monopolized drunken barroom conversations. The first is the question of Jeff Magnum, the mastermind behind Neutral Milk Hotel, who, after releasing In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, completely disappeared from public view, popping up every few years at best, singing backup vocals for lesser bands, with no mention of a follow-up. Then there’s the question of Rivers Cuomo, Weezer frontman and the guy most responsible for the band’s first two records, which are indisputable perfection — twenty songs and not a single wasted moment, all of them inconceivably catchy, but also smart and funny and, most importantly, vulnerable in such a way that Weezer became one of the most surprisingly important bands of the 90s. Then they released three more records over the course of a few years, and you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of good songs on any of them. They were so awful that one began to wish Rivers Cuomo had gone the way of Jeff Magnum instead. Because “Where the hell did he go?!” is a much cooler question than “Um, how did he wind up being this shitty?”
Regardless, that is the question that’s being asked, and Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo begins to offer some answers. A collection of 18 demos recorded between 1992 and 2004, the record is, quite expectedly, spotty. There are brief hints of the brilliance those first two records were full of: ‘Lemonade’ would have fit perfectly on The Blue Album had it been fleshed out a bit more, and ‘Longtime Sunshine’ would been right at home on the slightly darker Pinkerton. But beyond that there’s little more than a mess of big ideas that were never really given the treatment they needed or, in very few cases, deserved. Songs from the Black Hole, for instance, was an aborted concept-album/rock opera that was supposed to follow The Blue Album. Each band member would have his own character, and the point, I guess, was supposed to be that they would talk to one another about what it was like to be in a band — their struggles to deal with their newfound fame, their ability to continue to develop creatively, etc. It would have been a massive and at least partially interesting undertaking had any of the songs been any good.
And, in a nutshell, this has been the problem with Weezer since 1997. Cuomo has long been known as a student of pop music — and not just a regular old record nerd who could name every number one single of the past forty years if he had to, but a guy who made it his mission in life to figure out exactly what made them number one singles. He once spoke about the inordinate amount of time he’d spent breaking down pop songs, closely examining their chord progressions and song structures, then presumably using his findings to finish his own songs. What’s sad, though, especially given the endless character and quirkiness of his early work, is that somewhere along the way, Cuomo lost sight of one very important point: Even if your ideas are hugely ambitious, with every detail lovingly mapped out on paper or in your head, and even if you carry them out perfectly, just like you always wanted to, there still needs to be something of substance there. He lost sight of the intangibles, the brief moments of indescribable nuance that make a decent pop song a great pop song. As evidenced by the detailed descriptions included in the liner notes, Cuomo’s approach has always been somewhat measured, and in the very early stages, for whatever reason, it worked. As years went on, though, he was left with little more than a series of stale-sounding melodies and the kind of embarrassing, dialed-in rhymes you can see coming from a mile away.
Alone has answered some questions, provided a bit of a window into the strange, disappointing world of Rivers Cuomo, and now we’re left with a brand new question: Will he ever be able to get back on track? For now, the answer would seem to be no, not unless he starts listening to pop music like a fan rather than a scientist. •