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Why Everyone Needs to Leave Weezer Alone: The Harmless Fun Behind a Covers Album

It’s unclear when exactly it happened, but at some point, liking or disliking Weezer became a rorschach test for determining an individual’s personality. Going as far back as the release of Pinkerton in 1996, lines have been drawn in the sand regarding Weezer and their fanbase. A sketch from this season’s SNL even brought this Weezer dichotomy to life in the form of Matt Damon – a hardcore, “ride or die” Weezer fan who believes everything Rivers Cuomo has ever done is genius – and Leslie Jones – a cynical, former Weezer fan who believes Rivers Cuomo hasn’t done anything worth anyone’s time since Pinkerton. From this perspective, there’s no in-between and no compromise for these fans; you are one or the other but can’t be both.

And that’s never been more explicitly clear than when Weezer decided to surprise-release the Teal Album – a record of cover songs the band has quietly been developing over the last year. Depending upon who you talk to, the album itself is either hacky trash or pure brilliance – basically, the album is representative of how people already feel about Weezer themselves. And there’s significant evidence as why I think both sides are actually wrong.

As someone who calls herself a Weezer fan and has been regularly listening to the band since just before the release of 2001’s Green Album, I find myself lost in the middle of the contentious Weezer dichotomy. Matt Damon isn’t entirely correct when he asserts that “Pork And Beans” is better than “Buddy Holly” – that’s true crazy talk to me; but Leslie Jones isn’t correct either when she claims that “Weezer died when Matt Sharp left the band” – Scott Shriner is an incredible bass player worthy of much praise, in my opinion. There are underrated highs in their discography (namely, the White Album, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and Make Believe) and less than stellar lows (namely, Raditude, Hurley, and Pacific Daydream) – and that’s okay. Good and bad exists in nearly every band’s discography, and I would even argue there’s highs and lows within each album itself which is not true of most band’s discography. And the songs on the Teal Album are no exception to this.

When Weezer released their cover of Toto’s “Africa” in May 2018 after a curious fan started a meme-worthy campaign for it, people were split over the song’s success. Instead of laughing at the circumstances that led to the release of the song at all – not to mention the band’s clear joy in adding it to their live shows, some have called it “the worst pop recording of all time” while others claimed the band “must be stopped.” For me, “Africa” – the opening track on Teal – is just the tip of the album’s larger iceberg: it’s nostalgic, a bit silly, but most importantly, it’s fun.

The best part of hearing a covers album – as opposed to just one individual cover – is learning how the artists themselves approach the process. Are they purists insofar as crafting a cover that sounds as much like the original as possible while still sounding good (like Fiona Apple taking on The Beatles’ “Across the Universe”), or do they hope to completely transform the original song into something new (like Johnny Cash taking Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” to genius levels)? With Teal, Weezer simultaneously do both – which is actually awesome.

On tracks like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Weezer pays true homage to Tears For Fears with delicate vocals and melodic synth. In fact, the song only explicitly begins to sound more like Weezer when Rivers hits the chorus. Their approach to the already-heavily-sampled “Take On Me” is quite similar; the song only clearly transforms into a Weezer track when they swap out A-Ha’s signature synth solo for a harder guitar solo. The change is enough to make the track more interesting than straight forward – I only wish it happened earlier in the song.

Their take on the Turtles’ “Happy Together” is actually so straight forward that it feels refreshing. The most famous contemporary cover of this song – namely, the one by Simple Plan – tries too hard to make the classic tune into a faster pop punk anthem that it takes away the song’s sweetness. Rivers’ pitch-perfect harmonizing and dedication to embodying the track’s earnestness proves that it’s not always necessary to completely alter the cover for it to be good.

Likewise, it seems easy to compare Weezer’s purist cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” to a more shocking and transformative cover like Marilyn Manson’s – but I think that misses the point of Weezer’s work entirely. People enjoy Manson’s take on the Eurythmics mostly because of the novelty of it; he benefits from being so tonally and aesthetically opposite from the original artists. Meanwhile, I’m impressed that Weezer can so wonderfully capture the beating heart and unique, 80’s soul of the original; it proves they understand why the song works so well to begin with.

Some might dismiss Teal’s takes on “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Paranoid” as too straight-forwardly covering the original songs, and perhaps there is validity to that. Neither track does much to differentiate itself from the originals by Electric Light Orchestra and Black Sabbath, but on the other hand, that’s sort of why I love them. “Paranoid” in particular sounds eerily too much like the hardcore metal of Black Sabbath, which is honestly a feat when you remember that Weezer is famous for singing about Buddy Holly, Beverly Hills, and an unraveling sweater. The production on the entire album, and this track in particular, should be applauded more than anything for its uncanny ability to mimic the original songs with reverence and ease.

The two tracks on Teal that sound least like their original counterparts are also the two in which the band were having their most fun: “No Scrubs” and “Billie Jean.” Purely because of its subject matter, “No Scrubs” most obviously puts a smile on my face if only because hearing Rivers Cuomo say “his broke ass” with full sincerity is hysterical. Luckily, TLC already weighed in on the cover and gave heaps of praise. Even though we’ll never receive thoughts from Michael Jackson on Weezer’s “Billie Jean,” there’s no doubt that the song still inspires plenty of dancing even if Cuomo’s voice will never compare to Jackson’s iconic vocals.

The record’s closing track, a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” features Weezer at their most heartfelt. The Motown classic is given a bit of a facelift with a signature Weezer guitar solo, yet retains all the optimism and earnestness of the original. I can’t help but feel like the song itself acts as a pseudo call-to-arms for the cynical naysayers that want to deny this record its own essence. The Teal Album isn’t meant to be anything other than a fun experiment with classic songs everybody already loves. Nobody in Weezer spent time working on these covers as a way to detract from writing Pinkerton 2, and I find it strangely odd that that even needs to be said as a reminder at all.

Just like the rorschach test that Weezer has become, it’s painfully clear to me that most people decided their thoughts on the Teal Album before even hearing it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if any other seemingly hip band released a covers album instead of Weezer, critics would be so on-board for it. And this is true because, for as long as I’ve loved Weezer, everyone has simply projected what Weezer represents for them onto the band themselves. Rivers Cuomo is not your nerd rock idol who just gets it; he is a man and a father and an artist expressing himself in the only way he knows how. Weezer are not hacky dads desperately trying to stay relevant for the youth either (do you really think kids nowadays find ELO and Turtles songs cool?).

Weezer, more than anything, is having fun engaging with audiences in new and surprising ways. They transcend generations, play with actual guitars, fully embrace the social media landscape, and are still selling out arenas in 2019. If we can’t respect the joy they have in covering classic songs, we should at least respect that.

Rating: 8 / 10

Highlights: “Paranoid,” “Africa,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” “Stand By Me”



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