‘The Blue Album’ at 20: Looking Back at Weezer’s Debut, Track by Track
On May 10, 1994, a four-piece rock-and-roll band clad in sweaters and khakis and led by a bespectacled dude with a bowl cut dropped their debut album. In a world still reeling from the death of Kurt Cobain, they proceeded to take the teen-rock throne, armed with a handful of power chords and a lot of earnestness. Whether Weezer birthed modern emo, or produced any more than one really good album, varies depending on whom you ask, but in 10 tracks and 41 minutes, the mark they left in the twilight of rock’s reign is undeniable. Here, the Grantland staff takes you track-by-track through their debut (a.k.a. “The Blue Album”) and the memories that are inevitably attached to it, even 20 years later.
1. “My Name Is Jonas”
Chris Ryan: Album openers are a fetish of mine. There’s something about “Angel” by Massive Attack, “Rocks Off” by the Rolling Stones, “Jimmy James” by the Beastie Boys, and “Surrender” by Cheap Trick that make the rest of Mezzanine, Exile on Main St., Check Your Head, or Heaven Tonight totally click. Listen to the first song on Led Zeppelin albums, whether it’s the north-of-the-Wall caterwauling of “Immigrant Song” or the mechanized funk of “Custard Pie” — those leadoff hitters set up the rest of the lineup.
Doubly important are first songs from first albums. They say you wait your entire life to make your debut, but people rarely give new bands more than a couple of minutes. Song 1, Side 1, Album 1 needs to be the most engaging musical statement you can make. That’s why Pavement put “Summer Babe” at the beginning of Slanted and Enchanted, and it’s why the Stone Roses put “I Wanna Be Adored” at the beginning of their self-titled debut.
“My Name Is Jonas” is the first song on “The Blue Album.” If it’s not the definitive Weezer song, it’s still the one I think of when I think of the band. Everything that’s good about Weezer is in those three minutes and 24 seconds. Hell, everything that’s good about that band is in the first few power chords — the jangling, easy-to-whistle melody, the “in my room” lyrics saturated in longing and tripped up in obscurity, and the cotton candy metal-head guitars that come bursting out of Rivers Cuomo’s chest and into your heart.
2. “No One Else”
Emily Yoshida: Yes, of course, I am very familiar with the acoustic version. Though it’s now available on the 2010 “Rarities Edition” of “The Blue Album,” when I was in high school it was on a mythical Weezer B side CD-R of unknown provenance that was passed around and copied until it finally reached us underclassmen. For a while there, the acoustic “No One Else” probably got more play among my friends and me. I remember getting good use out of the rewind button on my friend’s CD player so we could hear Rivers’s falsetto “Now-ow” before the breakdown over and over again. If you feel like re-creating that experience, here you go. Now-ow. Now-ow. Now-ow.
Let’s be absolutely clear: “No One Else” is based on a pretty shitty sentiment, and even as a teenager at the prime of my ability to put up with shitty sentiments from dudes so long as they held a guitar and looked kind of sad and sang a cute falsetto I could play on loop, I could see that. Before Tony Soprano, Rivers Cuomo was the defining antihero of my adolescence. And yet if you are a heterosexual teenage girl in the throes of getting your brain broken by emotional rock and roll, you are doing a wacky mental dance around all that. You’re pinning your own self-loathing and insecurity on the lyrics, while also kind of wishing someone cared that much about whose jokes you were laughing at. You’re singing along with every word, and not changing the pronouns, and your vocal range is usually about the same as the boys weeping through the speakers. You hate the jerk and you want the jerk and you are the jerk.
“No One Else,” like any other panic attack resulting from a broken delusion, feels like it gets exponentially faster as it goes on. It would get a more deliberately paced, headbangy companion in Pinkerton’s “No Other One” and of course the faux-sensitivity of the acoustic version, but now I prefer the album version, as it chugs forward, careening cinematically off a cliff built of its own bullshit. It’s a ridiculous song and I am forever grateful it exists.
3. “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”
Andy Greenwald: Teenagers tend to be wildly passionate about certain trees while caring not one bit about the forest. Let’s walk that back. One thousand years ago, when I was 17, I was crazy about all sorts of clichéd teen boy things: indie rock, girls, comedy, MTV, and girls. And yet I was highly dubious of anything that had the temerity to blend them all together. (Does this mean I was essentially dubious of myself? I was 17 so, duh.) One of my best friends went nuts for “The Blue Album” the second it was released, but I had trouble wrapping my brain around it. It seemed too cute and considered. Where was the affect? Where was the attitude? I thought “The Sweater Song” was the sound of Nirvana burying its head in the preschool sandbox; I thought “Buddy Holly” was bubblegum.
But here’s the thing: I loved bubblegum! The truth is, I was being ridiculous. Arguing with “The Blue Album” was really just arguing with myself. I didn’t want to be the guy hooking up with someone’s “sweet memory” like Rivers Cuomo on the beautiful shame spiral that is “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here.” I wanted to be out there, Frenching Summer Babes and having opinions about French movies and leather jackets with the other Kool Things! But I wasn’t. I was a junior in high school who had read enough back issues of TV Guide to know that the Happy Days cast member who had a cameo in the “Buddy” video was named Al Molinaro. Forget Mary Tyler Moore. I would have been thrilled with a Cloris Leachman.
I made peace with Weezer years later when I finaly realized that the icky part of honesty is kind of the point. (Also: Bubblegum is the best kind of gum.) Good bands can offer a vision of escape. Great bands can get a song stuck in your head that feels like it’s been echoing in there all along.
4. “Buddy Holly”
Alex Pappademas: The premise of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” video is that Nirvana would be as fundamentally out of place on a ’50s variety show as a bunch of orangutans at a tea party; the premise of the Spike Jonze video for “Buddy Holly” is that if Weezer could somehow have appeared in the Happy Days episode “They Call It Potsie Love” as a Wisconsin band playing a sock hop at Arnold’s Drive-In, no one would have batted an eye. It’s funny how much the song seemed, at the time, like a knowing wink at the received, built-from-scrap nature of ’90s alt-culture. “I look just like Buddy Holly,” Rivers Cuomo sings, “and you’re Mary Tyler Moore.” Many, many people in Weezer’s audience probably fit that description back then, plus or minus a few Shaggys and Velmas, although I remember most of the rock shows I went to back then being more densely populated with dudes who looked just like Buddy Bradley. Forget everything you know about Rivers Cuomo and his aesthetic antiphilosophy and you can still hear “Buddy Holly” as a bouncy, affectionate satire of bohemian conformity, and/or maybe an ironic celebration of dressing like the opposite of Kurt Cobain, which was fast becoming the only avenue left to a rebel back then. Even the appropriated rap slang (“Why do they gotta front?”) serves to amplify the whiteness of Cuomo’s bread. When he boldly declares, “I don’t care what they say about us anyway,” it’s hilarious, because what could “they” possibly be saying, and how bad could it be? Hey, look at that guy’s whimsically out-of-date eyewear!
The fascinating thing about Cuomo as an artist is that in retrospect, it’s clear he meant none of this as a joke. He filled “The Blue Album” with alt-rock songs that drew on Quiet Riot and Cheap Trick not because he thought it was funny or transgressive but because he liked those sounds, he sang about looking just like Buddy Holly because he looked just like Buddy Holly, and he really didn’t care what people said about him, unless they said they liked Pinkerton the best.
5. “Undone (The Sweater Song)”
Mark Lisanti: In a different world, and on a different album, this could have been Weezer’s one-and-done song, the track dismissed a decade hence by the smirking talking heads of nostalgia-porn clip shows, their “Who was the band who did ‘Popular’ again?” It at first plays as a novelty, the kiss of death for a group trying to introduce itself to the world, with its jokey-seeming hooks about unraveling sweaters, its distracting background chatter (hi again, “Popular”), its ohhh-wohhh-ohs, and its droning notes hacked to bits by the 21-Marshall-stack salute of the guitars ripping through the chorus in the way practically every loud-quiet-loud song of the grunge era did. Weezer was decidedly not grunge. But you could easily mistake this one, the first one we got to hear, for a bunch of guys trying to crash the mope-party in flannel drag and a pair of Groucho glasses.
As we all know from our current timeline of Weezer cruises and 20-year retrospectives and pilgrimages to briefly genuflect at the feet of the 50-foot Rivers Cuomo statue before we set it ablaze at the end of each Coachella, they didn’t go one-and-done. They didn’t even put a single sweater in the video, just a pack of shambling golden retrievers. Our talking heads straighten out the smirks and speak with (correct) reverence about “The Sweater Song” — don’t you hear that military-march advance of the surprisingly tuneful and composed solo by the closet shredder in the Coke-bottle glasses; aren’t you whistling it right now? Our bands (OK, my band, “my band”) totally stole that move where Patrick Wilson jogs around the drum kit (thanks for that, Patrick), and by the time he got to that moment in every gig we all forgot he threw up before every show. Hand me the match, it’s time to light the Burning Rivers. This is the Best Song Ever, even if it’s not the best song on this album.
This is not a novelty. See you on the next cruise.
6. “Surf Wax America”
Amos Barshad: True story: I quoted “Surf Wax America” in my high school yearbook. It was the “You take your car to work, I’ll take my board / and when you’re out of fuel, I’m still afloat” line, because, clearly, I was, still am, and forever will be, a BEACON of independence, pluck, antiestablishmentarianism, and free will.
Twelve years after the fact, I’d have expected to feel at least a twinge or two of embarrassment here — first, for having taken the yearbook quote concept so earnestly; second, for having done so by declaring my groundbreaking rebel freedom via what I should have seen even then as a fairly lazy surfing metaphor. But nope: Twelve years later, I stand here to say that “Surf Wax” still bangs, that the pre-outro “Let’s go!” is one of the greatest “Let’s go!”s in rock-and-roll history, and that bragging about your surf-commute is a perfectly commendable thing to do.
“The Blue Album” has better, more considered songs; they’re the sad ones. But it doesn’t work without this one pure, dumb rocket-fuel blast of ginned-up, huffed-up, perfectly postured joy. Throughout most of the album, our man Rivers is frightened, anxious, nervous, or alone. Here, he’s standing and spitting happy, slyly assuring us that people who usually feel frightened, anxious, nervous, and alone can sometimes feel big, too.
So, no. No regrets over quoting, earnestly, cheesy Weezer. I do wish I’d changed one thing, though. I don’t know how it worked for you, but at my school, you were allowed to shout-out your friends only by their initials in your quote. I didn’t do it, though, ’cause I’d run out of space. And that, I regret. So, if you don’t mind, real quick: “yo yo yo ZK MP MG RK DY u my bros 4 life!!!”
7. “Say It Ain’t So”
Sean Fennessey: What to do when your signature song is about the worst part of your childhood? And even worse, it’s a sing-along? I’m fascinated by artists processing pain loudly and in public, for a wide audience. “Say It Ain’t So” is allegedly about remembering the dissolution of Rivers Cuomo’s parents’ marriage after he spots a Heineken in a fridge in the basement. The “Heine” in question belongs to his stepfather, also a drinker, and maybe a man prone to repeat the cycle. “Like father, stepfather,” etc. It isn’t the band’s biggest hit, coming third in the “Blue Album” cycle after the massive and unexpected Spike Jonze–refracted success of “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song).” But it’s the song that is most often licensed, the one that everyone wants to do at karaoke. It’s the campfire acoustic jam and the Jesus Christ pose anthem. (“This son is drowning in the flooooood!”) It’s metal and pop and Cat Stevens and King Diamond and Aerosmith and the Cars.
Nirvana gets all the credit for buffing and polishing the loud-quiet-loud songwriting framework that made the Pixies the band everyone said they saw at a dive in Boston in ’86. But “Say It Ain’t So” is the ne plus ultra of loud-quiet-loud alt-mythmaking. It is so sad and so silly and so cathartic, even if it just sounds like Airwalk sneakers and ill-fitting corduroys and Rugrats and Pogs now, drenched by the sonic dunk tank of time. It’s a song about the eternal bum-out and unfixable destruction that comes with drinking, and yet it’s a song that makes a lot more sense if you’ve been drinking. Rivers Cuomo is going to have to play this song in front of people until he’s dead. He’s no doubt girded himself against the vagaries of confession — it’s why Weezer songs never seem to be about anything but cutesy aphorisms these days. Pinkerton was the failed bloodletting, the public shame built on private shame. But it starts with “Say It Ain’t So,” a masochists’ wail, vacuum-sealed in riffs.
8. “In the Garage”
Molly Lambert: I have a very vivid memory of being 11, working on a science project for school at a friend’s house deep in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Granada Hills on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I was in a group of four kids and we were trying to build a phone out of paper cups and wires, according to a textbook full of ideas for simple children’s science projects. Only it wasn’t working at all, and after three failed attempts we had given up on getting the red wire to touch the copper wire and resorted to taking turns sitting on a skateboard and riding down the very steep paved hill.
While waiting for my next turn, I noticed that across the street two teenage girls had set up shop on their front lawn. They were hanging out by an open garage, drinking sodas in beach chairs and listening to music on a boombox. It was the music that caught my attention. It was alternative, but it also sounded like the Beach Boys. It was clear to me the girls across the street were the coolest people I had ever seen in my life. They were the kind of teenagers I wanted to be. Boldly, I crossed the street and asked them to ID the music for me, and they very nicely told me it was a band called Weezer. I had seen the video for “Undone (The Sweater Song),” but the reign of “Buddy Holly” had not yet come to pass. The next weekend I bought a cassette of “The Blue Album” at the Tower Records on Ventura Boulevard. I listened to it endlessly, flipping the cassette over and over on my Walkman.
“In the Garage” spoke to me, as a nerd who liked comic books and music. As I entered junior high, I found that being a teenager maybe wasn’t always as fun and glamorous as I had imagined when I saw those two valley girls listening to Weezer and chilling. I found comfort in music, and a lot of my memories of my early teens involve sitting in public places listening to albums on headphones, making myself a garage of the mind. I wasn’t into D&D, I already firmly believed that Kiss sucked, and I couldn’t play guitar, but “In the Garage” understood how I felt most comfortable nestled up with a comic book, a CD, and a notepad. I write these stupid words, and I love every one.
David Cho: Believe it or not, as the email circulated to decide who would write about which songs for this piece, no one wanted any part of “Holiday.” That’s probably because as we all looked back at (“Blue Album”–era) Weezer, we were all thinking about our 15-year-old selves and what at the time seemed like a uniquely and profoundly deep and VERY emotional album — like REAL feelings, you know? (Actually, you probably wouldn’t understand, never mind.) And for whatever reason, a relatively light song about going on vacation — nay, a “holiday” — didn’t really tap into that same emotional rawness that Weezer is remembered for.
Perhaps at the time, a critically inclined teenager could think that the song is a falsely optimistic facade that hides the true darkness within, etc., but the more time goes by, the more “Holiday” just seems like a pretty accurate look ahead to what would end up on 2001’s “Green Album”: really catchy songs that are based more on infectious quirkiness than lyrical depth. “Holiday / Far away / To stay / On a holiday / Far away / Let’s go today / In a heartbeat!” (FOR THOSE OF YOU KEEPING SCORE AT HOME, HE JUST RHYMED HOLIDAY WITH HOLIDAY.) While there is a certain level of cute high school pretension to the Kerouac reference in the bridge, it sort of lacks any other emotional resonance for anyone who isn’t a Carnival Tours or Sandals Resort enthusiast.
Just like most things that we loved in our youth when we thought we really understood ourselves, “The Blue Album” can be a little embarrassing (see also: any current 25-to-30-year-old’s LiveJournal from 2001 to 2007). But now, our thirtysomething-year-old selves, who are probably reading and/or writing this at our office computers, can recognize that the truest truism on the whole album — more so than sweaters as an analogy of our fragile emotional states, or irrational territorial condescension toward women — is that going on vacation is pretty great, and sounds really fun right now.
10. “Only in Dreams”
Steven Hyden: Weezer’s “Free Bird” — it’s the traditional set closer, it has the long guitar solo at the end, and it’s a song about desiring what you cannot have. Only Ronnie Van Zant made himself the unattainable one, while Rivers Cuomo (of course) is the one who desires.
“The guitar solo in ‘Only in Dreams’ is crafted to fit the structure of sex (or, really, masturbation) and orgasm, a slow rhythmic build-up that gets louder and faster and more ecstatic as it goes,” Sady Doyle once observed. The “Only in Dreams” solo is hardly the first guitar solo to be likened to whacking off, but the comparison fits the song thematically, rather than as a reductive shot at an unnecessary display of technical virtuosity. “The Blue Album” was a record made for people who preferred watching to doing, before the Internet came along and turned everybody into watchers. What exactly were you watching in “Only in Dreams”? A guy not get the girl. It was better that way, because Cuomo’s core audience of alienated teenage male virgins preferred the camaraderie of those who did not get the girl to actually getting the girl, because what in the hell do you do with a girl?
Quick personal anecdote: The best-looking guy in my group of friends back in my junior year of high school started dating this beautiful senior who could be reasonably described as “out of his league.” One day while driving somewhere in his car he played me a mix CD that she had made for him. “Only in Dreams” was the last track. I remember thinking to myself, This is an instance of life imitating art, because here is my friend dating this seemingly unattainable girl, who subsequently made him a mix CD culminating in a Weezer song about pining after an unattainable girl. Except my friend was dating the girl; so why would she put “Only in Dreams” in the crucial anchor slot of the mix CD? Was this her way of foreshadowing their eventual breakup? Because it’s sort of a weird song with which to end an ostensibly romantic mix CD. Or did she just not care about lyrics?
Looking back, I recognize that my friend wasn’t the Rivers Cuomo in this scenario. I was. I was the watcher. Jesus, I’m glad that was 20 years ago.