If 2019’s Teal album proved anything, it’s that there isn’t much Weezer isn’t willing to try. Though the Hella Mega Tour may have been postponed and Van Weezer still remains somewhere out on the horizon (supposedly coming out in May), Rivers Cuomo and company have continued their creative streak into the pandemic age. On their fourteenth album, OK Human, Weezer put its bombastic 80s covers and hair metal ambitions on hold to serve an unexpected dose of 21st-century quarantine music.
Weezer’s latest is the band’s shot at an introspective orchestral-pop opus, created with the vision of albums such as Pet Sounds and Nilsson Sings Newman in mind. Yet even with a grand 38-piece orchestra behind them, the band can’t help but sound undeniably like itself. From the album’s array of not-so-subtle references in its title and lyrics — which boasts a range almost as bafflingly diverse as the band’s own discography — to its reliable, often-satisfying sense of melody, OK Human is at once frustratingly and endearingly Weezer. But if you weren’t prepared for occasionally cringe-inducing power pop and rock anthems driven by an absurd amount of straight-faced, purehearted sentimentality, then you weren’t ready for Weezer in the first place.
Thematically, OK Human gets straight to the point. Across its 12 tracks, Cuomo finds various ways to essentially highlight one singular message: Isolation can be lonely, and we need to find ways to retain our humanity. Opener “All My Favorite Songs” is typical quarantine fare, with lines about avoiding parties and taking morning walks alone. Despite the fancier dressage in the form of a string section, it’s about as standard a Weezer song as they come, with Cuomo’s plain-as-day hooks (“I don’t know what’s wrong with me”) and the Weezer-esque “ooh ooh ooh”s to back them up. “Screens” sums up the depth of the album’s insights about pandemic life, full of transparent social commentary that is as dull as it is obvious.
But if you’ve ever wondered whether Rivers Cuomo could pull off channeling Brian Wilson or Harry Nilsson, OK Human has your answer. It’s yes, mostly. The mode of the ballad provides the album’s most convincing moments, from Cuomo’s disarmingly earnest delivery on “Numbers” to the grand, triumphant choruses of “Bird with a Broken Wing” and the glide of “La Brea Tar Pits.” Purely on the merits of sound, OK Human is the prettiest thing Weezer has done in years, rounding out the band’s big emotional melodies with orchestral flourishes.
The same cannot be said of the lyrics. Take “Playing My Piano,” which finds Cuomo effectively evoking Randy Newman, unfolding into absorbing music for candlelit hours until a line about how “Kim Jong-un could blow up my city” jarringly cuts through the pleasantries and ushers in the cringe.
In the corny department, Weezer is practically the stuff of legend. The band’s songs ride a very fine line between universally affecting and infuriatingly cheap. In terms of songwriting, Cuomo is just as likely to churn out another “Undone” as he is the next “Beverly Hills.” Though Cuomo’s lyrics are some of his least ironic since Pinkerton, they’re clunkier than ever. An overabundance of references — both literary and commercial — turns “Grapes of Wrath” into an endorsement of Audible instead of an escapist revelry. “Aloo Gobi” is Weezer’s next “Pork and Beans,” an eye-roll-inducing song which name-checks Serge Gainsbourg and rhymes various Indian foods to describe falling into monotony. Across the album, lyrics addressing things like Zoom-fatigue, Blackpink and “Frodo Jonesing for the ring” make Cuomo’s songs feel timely but also cheap and regretfully impersonal.
But throughout OK Human, there’s a sense that Cuomo sincerely means every word of what he says. Despite the band’s best efforts, Weezer doesn’t fully fit into the form, like how uncomfortably dressing up for picture day results in a yearbook photo that is unflattering but unmistakably you. Perhaps it’s in their nature. Ultimately, the album is filled with as much heart as it is with awkwardness. Deeply uncool eccentricities keep the set of personal, emotional songs across OK Human from being revelatory while rendering them so undeniably, endearingly Weezer.
Vincent Tran covers music. Contact him at [email protected].