Rivers Cuomo is a popstar. It’s an interesting revelation considering the Weezer frontman has spent the better half of the last 25 years chasing mainstream recognition (something the band has had since releasing their first single, “Undone – The Sweater Song” in 1994), but for as many times as he’s turned his band into a modern pop-rock experiment and apologized for it on the very next album, Cuomo continues to craft unbelievable earworms, whether he’s utilizing a team of co-writers and producers or simply his strat with the lightning strap.
To understand and accept this is to be a Weezer fan. Just as it’s been noted that the singular band has essentially split into two — one putting out weird records while the other puts out, well, Weezer records — fans can rarely know what to expect when they hear new music is coming, even when it’s been described to them beforehand. Put simply, we’ve been burned before, and we’re all ready to feel like clowns the day after a new single drops and it sounds closer to Twenty One Pilots than the band that wrote “Keep Fishin’.” Still, we have a reason to be excited; it seems that the plastic, filler-ridden mid-career crisis that plagued the band in the late 2000s is over. Since 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End, the band has (more or less) released consistent albums that, at the very least, keep Weezer fans guessing. While they still jet back and forth between pop-rock and expertly executed power-pop, there’s energy once again present that seemed to disappear somewhere around 2007’s self-titled red album. Weezer seem invested in the music they’re making (having averaged a new album each year since 2014), and more importantly, the records they’re making feel like Weezer records – even the weird ones. For my money, their latest is the closest the band has come to merging those two lanes; OK Human is a left-field masterpiece that comes dangerously close to reaching the heights of the band’s early career.
For context, Weezer began work on OK Human before agreeing to an arena tour with Green Day and Fall Out Boy, prompting them to switch their focus to Van Weezer, a collection of songs inspired by the band’s penchant for heavy metal and crafted specifically for a concert audience. In a strange twist of fate, the tour was canceled for obvious reasons, the album pushed back (currently slated for May of 2021), and despite having three singles released from the project, the band once again switched their attention back to completing OK Human, a timely album about isolation, technology, and familial relationships. These topics may not be new for Weezer, but the instrumentation that accompanies them certainly is; in an effort to connect with music from the 60s and 70s, OK Human was constructed using no computers, no click tracks, no electric guitars, and a 38-piece orchestra with strings recorded at the historic Abbey Road Studios. The resulting collection is successful not only because of the stunning arrangements featured on tracks like lead single “All My Favorite Songs” and the cinematic “Bird With a Broken Wing,” but also because they would stand alone as great Weezer songs regardless. It is unbelievably easy to imagine a crunchy, Pinkerton-esque version of the album’s catchiest song, “Aloo Gobi,” and while some fans may clamor to hear that version, what we’re presented with stands apart from anything in their catalog.
As is the case with all Weezer albums, OK Human arrives with a certain catch, and that is the bizarre, occasionally charming, and often baffling lyrics penned by Cuomo. Look no further than the head-turning product placement on the otherwise endearing “Grapes of Wrath:” “I’m gonna rock my Audible/Headphone, Grapes of Wrath/Drift off to oblivion/I just don’t care, I just don’t care.” It’s not enough to sink an otherwise strong song, but it is par for the course when it comes to questionable lyrical decisions. (Later, on “Playing My Piano,” Cuomo casually mentions that he is so at peace, “Kim Jong-Un could blow up my city, I’d never know.”) What’s even stranger is how strong the songwriting can be when Cuomo is on; the lyrical transition between “Grapes of Wrath” and album highlight “Numbers” could give a listener whiplash. “They say that you’re too short to join the team/And your IQ’s too low for poetry/Numbers are out to get you,” he laments against quiet, melancholy strings, before launching into a beautiful chorus that genuinely recalls the band “OK Human” is meant to reference in the first place.
Fortunately, even the filler here (“Screens”) is crafted with so much warmth and love from its supporting players and returning producer Jake Sinclair that it’s easy to forgive something as cliche as a song about — you guessed it — everyone staring at their screens too much. Given the lack of power chords here, it might be easy to mistake OK Human for a Rivers Cuomo solo album, but again, there’s something about the increased presence of Brian Bell’s keyboard, the prominence of Scott Shriner’s bass and Patrick Wilson’s percussion that give these songs that distinct Weezer charm that only recently resurfaced on their 2016 self-titled white album. For all of their loving nods to the influential pop songwriting of the Beach Boys and the Beatles (especially on the aforementioned “Playing My Piano”), some of the best moments here are most prominently influenced by songwriters like Harry Nilsson. Prior to first mention of the album in 2019, it was hard to imagine a Weezer song like the unforgettable closing track “La Brea Tar Pits” could even exist, and now that it’s here, what’s even more remarkable is its beauty. During the song’s chorus, Cuomo sings that he doesn’t want to die “’cause there’s still so much to give,” and considering how rejuvenated his band has sounded over the past six years, I’m inclined to believe him.
As the years go on, Weezer fans are bound to keep guessing what the band is going to feel like churning out two, three records down the line, but OK Human will continue to exist, not as their outlier album, but as some of the strongest and surprisingly touching music the band ever recorded. All of Rivers Cuomo’s favorite songs may be slow and sad, but fortunately for us, OK Human has a whole lot more to unpack than that.