FEATURE: 20 years of The Green Album
Originally published in Gigwise on May 15th, 2021. You can read the full story here: https://www.gigwise.com/features/3399054/20-years-of-the-green-album--weezer
In January 2021, Weezer both announced and released their fourteenth studio album OK Human. It was instantly regarded, and will likely always be viewed, as a left-turn in the band’s discography. Their signature power pop sound — that they even retained amidst the synthetic polish of Pacific Daydream and The Black Album — was nowhere to be heard; a 38-piece orchestra occupied the space where their guitars usually stood and the voice of their frontman, Rivers Cuomo, was almost always accompanied by grand piano. It was no surprise, then, for immediate comparisons to be drawn with The Beatles’ latter-era forays into carefully-arranged baroque pop. The lush, swelling strings; the thoughtful and detailed interplay between melody and harmony; the artful approach to pop songwriting within the confines of the genre’s conventions. The shoe fit.
With that in mind, OK Human’s arrival in 2021 feels somewhat serendipitous. How appropriate for a new Weezer record to reflect so much of The Beatles’ later work when, mere months later, an album of theirs that so precisely distilled The Fab Four’s iconic Merseybeat era — The Green Album — would celebrate its 20th anniversary. Drummer Pat Wilson has himself acknowledged Green’s kinship with the era bookended by ‘Please, Please Me’ and ‘Help!’: “[Green is] The Beatles, if they had big rock guitars” — and he was correct to say so. It might be louder and rougher, and Ric Ocasek’s production might provide a high-definition sheen, but Green’s spirit and structure are identical to The Beatles’ most prolific and culturally-dominant period, and of their contemporaries who formed the foundation of pop rock itself. Succinct, straightforward songs with clearly defined structures, boundless ideas, and resonant, familiar themes. No frills, no excess — just eleven (we’ll get to that) perfect pop tunes.
Take ‘Knockdown Dragout’. It blasts out of the blocks, its lyrics are loaded with the brand of quaint, innocent expressions of love that the earliest days of the singles charts were built on, and it wastes not one of its brief 128 seconds. The desperate pleas of ‘Don’t Let Go’ and the bounding enthusiasm underpinning ‘Simple Pages’ are both unlocked by driving rhythm sections and tight, heavenly harmonies reminiscent of Lennon & McCartney’s “eyeball-to-eyeball” days. Even ‘Photograph’, one of the few songs here that doesn’t ignite from its first split second, is still a startlingly efficient exercise in economical, ideas-driven pop-rock — its double hand-claps effortlessly ape ’60s guitar pop, and its desire to continually develop and introduce new ideas throughout rewards numerous repeated listens. Not one of these songs extends beyond three minutes.
Even ‘Hash Pipe’, the one stylistic outlier on the record — which does extend over three minutes and arguably has more in common with the heavier, crunchier hard rock of 2002’s Maladroit — can’t hide its burgeoning desire to be considered first and foremost as a concise pop song, even with all the grunting and macho posturing. ‘Crab’, whose guitar lines are peppered with bluesy inflections and the kind of snarl rarely displayed by post-millennium Weezer, still drives onward via no-nonsense power chord sequences. This album is the ultimate exercise in creating compact, crisp, pop rock.
The 28-minute version of Green is perfect in its original ten-song form, but no listen-through is complete without additional bonus track, and crucial eleventh entry, ‘I Do’ — a short, forlorn ballad that exchanges the up-tempo propulsion of the preceding ten tracks for soft keyboards and an uncertain, tiptoeing shyness. Through the song’s alternate approach, the crooning, bluesy swing of doo-wop is present but never domineering. It ensures the album closes on a beautiful, contemplative cadence that pays tribute to one of Merseybeat’s earliest commercial competitors.
And yet, strong as the entirety of Green is, it’s ‘Island in the Sun’ that still seems to tower above the rest as the album’s totemic, defining moment. First written in 1999, with Rivers already crafting a new pop songwriting science for himself, it solidified and justified the path Weezer were taking. As an affectionate, playful tribute to the sun-kissed, warm-hearted California sound of the 1960s, it is purest tropical delight. Its success pushed Green to platinum status in United States within four months of release, landed Weezer a slot on Saturday Night Live (alongside Will Ferrell), and saw them featured on the soundtrack for HBO’s flagship series The Sopranos. To this day, it remains the song Weezer are most associated with and recognised for by the general public, having been streamed more than 300 million times on Spotify and listened to by 150,000 Last.fm users during the pandemic — clear of ‘Buddy Holly’ and ‘Say It Ain’t So’ on both sites.
With Green, Cuomo wanted another smash hit, and, via the bare essence of pop, he got it.
It’s hard to believe, given Weezer’s sustained commercial success since 2001, that Green’s origins were borne out of the raw sting of public rejection. Cuomo avoided the spotlight between 1997 and 1999 after Pinkerton was (incorrectly) dismissed as “juvenile” and “aimless” — embarrassing, even. He’d holed himself up in a Los Angeles apartment, blackened the walls and ceiling, and disconnected the phone. Known amongst fans as the “Black Room” era, it was during this time that Rivers opted for the aforementioned songwriting science that drew so much inspiration pop rock’s sacred cows, built ‘Island in the Sun’ and the rest of Green, and the majority of Weezer’s career thereafter. Pinkerton’s uncomfortable urges and theory-laden compositions were thrust aside, substituted for vacuum-packed, jet-engine streamlined pop songs, constructed with clinical precision — as though the genre’s pioneers were calling out to him through time. The new science then stuck for so long, and suited Rivers so perfectly, that OK Human was unsurprisingly considered an exception upon its arrival twenty years later. Only the art rock-tinged Red Album rivals it for deviation from the 21st century Weezer norm — but even that album’s lead single, ‘Pork & Beans’, acknowledged that “Everyone likes to dance to a happy song”.
The magic of Rivers’ post-millennium pop science is supported by the fact that, even as the band’s critical favour has taken repeated blows in the ensuing years, their cult following and arena-filling potential have both stayed firm. And the answer to the question of “What keeps fans coming back after nearly three decades?” is contained within Green’s walls: Rivers has pop songwriting down to such an exact science that his personality could fade away, but his affection, passion, and earnest adoration for the genre never relent. His yearning, unending search for another smash hit remains at the forefront of almost every new record they release. Sometimes that hinders quality control, but the mission to pierce the pop zeitgeist once more is always awkwardly, adorably transparent. Their charms as a group are irresistible, even to those who apparently “gave up” years ago but continue to return for every new cycle.
And it is Green’s pop-inspired methodology that’s the origin point for everything that has come since. Everything that forms the Weezer tapestry, and everything that makes Weezer fandom such a character-building experience, began here. All the baffling missteps and sudden resurrections, and all the disappointments and pleasant surprises — they owe everything to the band’s desire to create pop music. The truth is that Weezer are a pop band. Over the years, an acquiescent, loving understanding between fan and creator has been agreed upon these terms. Rivers’ intentions haven’t always synchronised with the wishes of his followers, but pop music is such a sprawling hotbed for creativity and diversity that more successful experiments are always imminent from a musician who adores the genre as he does.
Cuomo’s response to mixed or negative public reaction has become increasingly healthy with each passing record, too. No more blackened rooms and disconnected phones for him; no widespread anger or complaint from the audience. He simply writes more pop music (at alarming volume of late), and his fans see if that particular vision works for them. Festival-friendly millennial pop (Pacific Daydream), the ’60s California sound by way of gigantic power chords (The White Album), novelty covers of pop hits from yesteryear (The Teal Album) — the spectrum has been covered. And the band’s poptimist heart started beating with The Green Album. It’s a notion that’s bemoaned some days and celebrated on others, but it’s a notion that will never cease to be true.