May 10 marked the 20th anniversary of Weezer's triple-platinum self-titled debut, commonly referred to as The Blue Album, and the Internet nearly combusted under the weight of think pieces and geeked-out reminisces. But one fact stood out above the track-by-track dissertations of the immaculately infectious modern-rock gems that Rivers Cuomo and company crafted: Weezer's debut dropped just three weeks after Kurt Cobain's death.
Cuomo, Patrick Wilson, Matt Sharp and Jason Cropper worshipped Nirvana and other punk- and metal-influenced rock titans of the day. With 20 years of hindsight, though, it's clear that melodic masterpieces like "Buddy Holly" and "Say It Ain't So" serve as a massive demarcation between the often-torturous sonic attack of grunge and the more pop-conscious world of what would eventually come to be known as emo.
Throughout The Blue Album's long incubation period, Cuomo mastered the art of heart-on-sleeve songwriting and a goofy, geek-chic performance style. Early critics denigrated Weezer for being too measured, too smiley, too suburban — too #normcore, in today's parlance. Yet no one in the perpetually depressed mid-'90s alt-rock universe had ever sung so honestly about awkward sexual dynamics, alcoholic parents, Dungeons & Dragons and going surfing instead of doing drugs.
Weezer seemed destined for greatness early on, but the band's early years in Los Angeles were marked by indifference and struggle. Then two hilarious videos directed by Spike Jonze — and a Seattle radio station endlessly spinning "Undone (The Sweater Song)" — put them on the map, and it didn't take long for a generation of teenagers unimpressed by grunge's darkness to immediately connect with Weezer's mix of bubblegum pop, brooding melancholia, acoustic balladry and thick-as-a-brick guitar riffs. Within six months, The Blue Album was certified gold; within a year, platinum.
Yet Cuomo's mental neuroses and descent into depression — while attending Harvard, he even lived in a house with black-painted walls and fiberglass-covered windows — transformed him from lovable geek to tortured creative genius on the 1997 follow-up Pinkerton.
Heavy in both sonic quality and lyrical density, Pinkerton confounded critics and fans. Weezer broke apart at the seams for three years, but in that time, a new demographic treated Pinkerton as the Magna Carta of loud, incisive emo-rock.
Weezer's career couldn't be killed, but it has careened in many disorienting directions. In 2000, before fully reuniting, the band performed abrasive underground grunge concerts under the name Goat Punishment — then headlined the Warped Tour the same year. In 2001, Cuomo and company re-embraced their mainstream-friendly power-pop roots on The Green Album — then added arena-ready riffs à la Cheap Trick and Quiet Riot on 2002's Maladroit. Somewhere in there, the megawatt winged-W logo and ridiculous flying-V guitars became a staple of Weezer's epic live shows.
These mainstream aspirations turned the
band into a punching bag of the critical rock
establishment, though; 2005's
Rick Rubin-produced Make Believe is universally despised. So naturally, Cuomo fired back on 2008's The Red Album by adding 808 drum machines, Southern rap and baroque counterpoint vocals to Weezer's eccentric mix.
Things have gotten even weirder since: goofy No. 1 hits like "Beverly Hills" and "Pork and Beans"; hootenanny-style tours where fans were invited onstage to play with the band; Cuomo performing as a puppet-wielding mime; album covers featuring the fat guy from Lost (and album titles like Raditude); one-off collaborations with Kenny G, B.o.B. and Lil Wayne; leaving major-label Geffen for indie-heavyweight Epitaph; an endless stream of rarities collections and memoirs; theme songs for the U.S. World Cup and State Farm Insurance; even two editions of the Weezer Cruise (last year's departed out of Jacksonville).
Yet onward Weezer charges — rumors of a ninth full-length album abound, and The Blue Album's fawning 20th anniversary commemorations continue to pour forth. Which means the band's June 6 appearance in St. Augustine, only the third of 16 shows scheduled this summer, should serve as a revelatory blast of both nostalgic memory and enterprising ambition.