OK Human: First anniversary celebration
This article was originally published on Backseat Mafia’s website on 30th January 2022: https://www.backseatmafia.com/not-forgotten-weezer-ok-human-on-its-first-birthday/
By the time of OK Human’s release, its title had already bounced around Weezer’s fandom for some time. In a pre-pandemic interview, frontman Rivers Cuomo confirmed the working title referred to a “piano-based, eccentric” album, “with strings”. Weezer fans are no strangers to the band serving up sudden surprises (both welcome and, erm, otherwise), but when the US four-piece deviate from their usual formula, their loving community tends to tiptoe cautiously. When Cuomo & co. have faced critical scorn after creative detours in the past, as they did following 2019’s self-titled Black Album, they’ve often recalibrated by offering up slight variations upon their earliest recognised sound — the idea of them drifting even further away from neutral ground with OK Human was a development that fans approached with trepidation, especially after a run of albums they deemed unsatisfactory.
With the long-delayed glam rock pastiche Van Weezer finished but stuck in a COVID-enforced holding pattern, OK Human was politely nudged into the world instead in January 2021. Initial critical reaction was warm but reserved, and a staggered release resulted in the album drifting slightly under the radar commercially. Where Van Weezer had an entire worldwide tour with Green Day and Fall Out Boy supporting its eventual release in May 2021, anticipation for OK Human had been drummed up modestly in the form of cryptic Spotify playlists and the arrival of floppy disks at fans’ houses. And yet, somehow, we’re here: one year hence, lead single ‘All My Favourite Songs’ is Grammy-nominated after becoming the band’s most successful original single for 13 years, and the album’s reception in the wider music community has proven to be a successful slow-burn. Its legacy is already firm and richly deserved.
Whisper it, but Weezer made something wonderful here. In the years ahead of us, I think we have a responsibility to celebrate it as much as we do their finest and most acclaimed works. The elegant interplay between Rivers’ delicately composed melodies and the carefully arranged harmonies of Rob Mathes’ 38-piece orchestra; the warmth and intimacy of Jake Sinclair’s organic, analogue production; the curious and endlessly rewarding contrasts between the sound of classic 60s pop and the beleaguered laments of a middle-aged man living an increasingly digitised and prescribed 21st century existence. The combination of its musical influences, its production team, and its lyrical topics make it the album Weezer have been building towards for quite some time. The results are special.
Ever since the writing sessions for Everything Will Be Alright in the End (2014), Cuomo has cut an increasingly contemplative and reflective figure. A man known for looking outwards and ahead (sometimes to the irritation of his most loyal followers), his gaze has turned further and further inward in recent years. Where “EWBAITE” saw him turning over regrets both personal and professional and agonising over his waning influence in the music industry, and where Blackstressed over internet clout and became jaded by media saturation, OK Human combines those subject areas to tell the story of a man losing pace with all that surrounds him. Where 2017 single ‘Beach Boys’ saw Cuomo become the “furniture” in a “hip hop world”, OKH’s closer ‘La Brea Tar Pits’ is a plea from somewhere deeper within that same headspace: with the famous landmark’s numerous visitors as his audience, he begs someone to stop him from sinking beneath the sludge. Late-era Cuomo is at his most fascinating when his inner pensiveness leaves him seriously doubting his present and future circumstances.
‘Bird with a Broken Wing’ posits, albeit with a tender and beautiful whimper, that there’s still “a song to sing”, even as the band enters its fourth decade; ‘Aloo Gobi’ sees Rivers’ days blurring together as he finds it harder to discern convenient comfort from prescribed sedentarism; ‘Screens’ details the concern he feels as he watches both his young daughter and his elderly neighbour disappear behind the addictive effects of the infinite scroll, only to admit to similarly obsessive online habits in ‘Numbers’, the band’s prettiest and most overtly heart-rending arrangement for many a year. Away from the glare of computer screens, even the ostensibly strident and proud ‘Playing My Piano’ gives me pause for thought when Cuomo concedes that he “hasn’t washed [his] hair in three weeks” as he “gets so absorbed and time flies”. On OKH, Cuomo often resembles somebody so deep in the spiral of routine and habit that he’s become lost there while the world accelerates outside his window. It doesn’t rage against the dying of the light so much as sigh at it.
OKH’s lyrical content and release date will likely see history remember it as a “pandemic album” but, if we’re to believe that the record was “75% done” before the United States entered lockdown in spring 2020, Cuomo’s musings on audiobooks, dull routines, and double-bolted doors (plus all the parties he avoids) speak to an emerging school of thought: that our lives pre-COVID were already beginning to resemble the increasingly isolated, digitised, and surveilled existences we’ve led since the virus began to dominate our day-to-day (the aforementioned ‘La Brea Tar Pits’ stops dead about a third of the way through while drummer Pat Wilson drops his sticks to answer a phone call). A life ruled by algorithms and programs and brands is a subject Weezer devoted considerable space to on Black, but where Dave Sitek’s polished, modern production made that a suitably synthetic and restless experience throughout, OKH opts for a considerable contrast between topic and atmosphere: how curious a dichotomy it is that Weezer would choose timbres and textures associated with pop acts of 60 years ago to tackle current and immediate concerns.
The record’s 60s baroque sound has been rendered so beautifully by producer Jake Sinclair, who is staking a strong claim to be Weezer’s unofficial 6th member (Karl Koch is, rightfully, the 5th). Ever since he oversaw production on The White Album (2016) fans have eagerly anticipated his return, and his reappearance brings about the warmest Weezer record to date. You hear every purring breath of every string as the bow slides across its face; the arrangements on display are some of the band’s most graceful, earnest, and layered across their entire career, and Sinclair ensures that every inch is instantly detectable at any moment; the concept was spawned when Cuomo was approached by the producer to create an album in the style of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Sings Newman. The Beach Boys & The Left Banke are influences Weezer have worn on their sleeves since day one, with the melancholy of Pet Sounds and ‘Walk Away Renée’ always present in their discography (White’s ‘Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori’ even went so far as to nip its chord sequence from the latter), and now they’ve finally, happily, expertly allowed subtext to jump to text.
OK Human is the new Weezer classic. While I’ve personally been charitable towards Make Believe, The Red Album,Hurley, Pacific Daydream, and Black over the years when music aficionados have come for them (even Raditude gets me tapping my foot at fleeting moments), OKH makes its own case to be ranked alongside The Blue Album (1994) and Pinkerton (1996). And when ‘La Brea Tar Pits’ (which, if you hadn’t already guessed, is my clear personal choice from all 12 tracks) sees the album fade out on the same discordant arpeggio that introduced the world to Weezer’s first single ‘Undone — The Sweater Song’ 28 years ago, there’s the palpable and very real sense that OKH has brought everything full circle. The band’s “flying W” is tattooed on my right forearm, so of course I get overwhelmed. Weezer never “lost it” — they’ve produced some terrific albums since the turn of the millennium — but never before have I felt sentimental attachment to a new Weezer record as instantly as I have with OKH. Weezer encourage great affection, even from people who apparently gave up on them years ago, and albums like OK Human are the reason we continue to return to them and care so deeply about them.