Entertainment

05.10.14

Remembering Weezer’s ‘The Blue Album,’ A Garage Rock Classic, on Its 20th Anniversary

It's one of the few truly perfect debuts in rock history. Every song—from ‘My Name is Jonas’ to ‘Only in Dreams’—is not only excellent but essential.

Here's something that's guaranteed to make you feel old, especially if you're a 32-year-old recovering adolescent music geek like me: Weezer's self-titled debut, a.k.a. The Blue Album, was released 20 years ago today.

The usual assessment of The Blue Album is that it was a pretty influential record. Kurt Cobain died on April 20, 1994. Weezer's LP came out three weeks later. Grunge was on the decline. Something new—something brighter, lighter, and catchier—was taking its place. The pop-punk of Green Day, the Britpop of Oasis, the alternative arena rock of Weezer. Eventually, The Blue Album went triple platinum in the U.S. Weezer reacted by releasing Pinkerton. Pinkerton inspired emo. The rest is history.

But I don't know. In anticipation of The Blue Album's (terrifying) 20th, I've spent the last couple of days listening to the LP on repeat—on my laptop, on my iPhone, on my car stereo, on my actual stereo. I've thought a bit about what made The Blue Album so great, and also how American popular music has evolved in Weezer's wake. And I've come to a different conclusion.

The Blue Album wasn't influential enough.

I was 12 when Weezer's first LP came out. I actually remember buying it. Exhausted, no doubt, by my nagging, my mom had given in and agreed to chauffeur me to Strawberries in Marlton, NJ, one of the thousands of dinosauric record stores that have since disappeared from the earth. I was allowed to select two CDs. I may be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure I found The Blue Album in the bargain bin. I hadn't heard "Undone (The Sweater Song)" yet; in fact, I'd never even heard of Weezer. But something about the cover image—four deadpan dudes against a robin's-egg blue background—spoke to me, I guess. I took the CD home. I honestly can't recall what I thought of it, or whether I listened to it at all.

For Weezer, indifference was nothing new. They'd just spent two years gigging around Los Angeles to minimal effect. "I remember just being totally shocked at how little people responded to us, because I thought we were so good," frontman Rivers Cuomo would later say. "I mean, we were playing the same songs that eventually became big hits, like 'The Sweater Song' and 'Say It Ain't So,' and we'd play 'em out in the L.A. clubs. [People] would just be like, 'Go away. We want a grunge band.'" Initially, Geffen declined to release a single from The Blue Album, preferring to rely on word of mouth instead. But the strategy failed, and six weeks later, after discovering that "Undone (The Sweater Song)" was spontaneously catching on in Seattle, the label reversed course. Even so, it still took another six months for The Blue Album to go gold.

I probably stumbled upon the disc during that odd interregnum—the period after its release but before Spike Jonze's iconic "Sweater Song" video materialized on MTV—and I probably reacted like those L.A. audiences: Go away. I want a grunge band. At the very least I was confused.

Video screenshot

Nothing really sounded like Weezer in 1994. Pop was in the midst of one of its more saccharine phases; Ace of Base, the Nineties version of Abba, somehow managed to release three of the year's Top 10 bestselling songs, a feat that hasn't been equaled since. Meanwhile, rock felt decidedly less pleasurable than ever before. Seriously—go raid your dusty CaseLogic archives and listen to a bunch of early, non-Nirvana grunge CDs sometime. Sure, the genre has its moments. But for the most part it's grating stuff: sludgy guitars, droning chords, torpid tempos, dissonant, repetitive melodies, and lots of adolescently "poetic" lyrics about angst and alienation. Grunge makes sense if you're a sad, self-righteous teenager. Otherwise it's a slog.

Still, it wasn't until Weezer surfaced on my local alternative radio station that I bothered to pay any attention to them. Hey, I have that CD, I must have realized. I guess I should check it out. Maybe it was the contrast that finally did it: hearing "The Sweater Song" alongside "The Sign" and "Vasoline" was a quick and easy way to establish a sense of scale, and Weezer benefitted from the comparison. Or maybe it was just the FM equivalent of peer pressure. Either way, as soon as I actually tuned in, I was done for.

The stuff I loved about The Blue Album as a 12-year-old is the same stuff I love now. It's one of the few truly perfect debuts in rock history; every song—from "My Name is Jonas" to "Only in Dreams"—is not only excellent but essential. It took The Beatles three records to get there; it took the Beach Boys eight. Weezer arrived fully formed and flawless.

But what made The Blue Album such a revelation? Listening to it now, two things stand out. The first is Cuomo's supernaturally precise sense of melody. Great pop songs come in every configuration imaginable, but the one thing they all have in common is that they're memorable—and while a rhythm or a vibe or a lyric can sometimes make a song stick, the surest route to the brain's reptilian pleasure nodes is typically a good tune.

Grunge makes sense if you're a sad, self-righteous teenager. Otherwise it's a slog.

Every track on The Blue Album passes the test. They each seem indivisible and inevitable, as if they'd always existed in some elemental, lapidary form and Cuomo hadn't so much composed them as unearthed them. They're also self-sufficient; you can strip away the heavy-metal guitars, the ramshackle drums, and even Cuomo's youthful, yearning vocals, and what you're left with is still a song—something that continues to exist, in all of the most important ways, when you sing it to yourself in the shower (or at the Jersey Shore on an acoustic guitar in the middle of some hot August night).

Cuomo meant to write this way; he pored over The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds while making The Blue Album, and he later took it upon himself to create his own "Encyclopedia of Pop," a three-ring binder in which he dissected the mechanics of songs by Nirvana, Green Day, and Oasis, among others. Hence the chorus of "Only in Dreams"—a four-note figure that modulates upward, hopefully, as Cuomo "reach[es] out [his] hands and hold[s] on to hers" in his dream, then descends as he wakes to find "it's all been erased." Hence the "woo-hoo" bridge of "Buddy Holly"—a triumvirate of counterbalanced lines that climaxes with a gorgeous major-minor shift and a vertiginous falsetto arc, which links it like a tendon to the even catchier "wee-ooh" chorus. Hence the entirety of "No One Else," a tune that is borderline Pythagorean in its balance and proportion. All of this stuff is Brill Building-level immaculate. None of it is accidental.

The second thing that set The Blue Album apart was its force of personality. Cuomo may have been writing melodies that everyone could sing along to, but he was coupling them with lyrics that only could've been about him. On "Only in Dreams," he worried about "crush[ing]" his dream girl's "pretty toenails into a thousand pieces" while they danced. "My Name is Jonas" was inspired by a car accident that his brother got into at Oberlin—and the insurance hassles that followed. "Say It Ain't So" addressed the misplaced anxiety he felt, as the son of an alcoholic, after finding a beer in his stepfather's fridge. Even "Surf Wax America," a seemingly innocuous homage to The Beach Boys' early hits, morphed into a meditation on drowning. "All along the undertow is strengthening its hold," Cuomo sang. "I never thought it'd come to this. Now I can never go home."

Cuomo's neuroses—and his ability to transform them into songs that were specific yet mysterious enough to seem universal rather than self-indulgent—would become even more pronounced (famously) on Pinkerton, Weezer's ultra-diaristic sophomore effort. But it all began with The Blue Album. Songs about grandiose generalities are well and good; that's what a lot of pop music consists of. Still, there's an unmistakable power in the kind of songs that seem to connect you straight to another person, in all their weirdness and wonder. Alchemical songs that achieve pop universality through personal specificity. The Blue Album is full of them.

I think the world would be a better place if more rock music really sounded like, say, "In the Garage." But despite all the chatter about Weezer's influence—about nerd rock, or emo, or whatever—I don't really hear it. It's one thing to write a song about adoring Kiss. It's another thing to do it with a sense of melody and personality as potent as Cuomo's. Today's rock giants don't even come close. Coldplay's tunes can be lovely, but their songs are designed to be about anyone. One size fits all. Same goes for Maroon 5. And The Killers. And the less said about Imagine Dragons, the better.

About a year after I fell for The Blue Album, I started my own rock band. I blame Weezer, at least in part. Until I met my wife, that pubescent band was probably the most important thing that ever happened to me: more important than getting into college; more important than the journalism career that followed. My bandmates were my best friends during the most difficult years of my life—the years when I was unformed and uncomfortable, selfish and solipsistic. They're still my best friends today.

And without Weezer, I doubt we would've gotten together. Most rock (or pop) stars, then as now, seem like superheroes—a separate breed destined from birth for musical ubiquity. Inhuman, in short. But Weezer were the opposite. They assembled Encyclopedias of Pop; they sang about "12-sided die." They wore khakis on their record cover. They felt possible.

My band played its first real show in the fall of 1996—conquering high-school freshmen summoned back to our "old" middle-school gymnasium to perform at a dance. We were up on stage now—light years away from those little eighth-graders. We were called The Division, for that show at least. We opened with "The Sweater Song."