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On Maladroit: The Road To Weezer’s Forgotten Fourth Album

On December 7, 2015

My buddy Matt does this thing where whenever someone brings up Metallica, he immediately interjects that “It’s such a shame that they all died in that plane crash after their 4th album.” For Matt, not only are Kill 'Em All, Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets, and...And Justice For All the best Metallica records, but everything that came after was so traumatic to the role those albums played in his life that it's all utterly wiped clean from the cultural landscape so far as he’s concerned. I mean sure, no one was up in arms demanding that covers album Garage Inc. or the insane thing they did with Lou Reed (“Junior Dad” is pretty great though, no joke), but can Matt at least leave us The Black Album before he makes them take their fateful flight? It’s with this wishfully revisionist approach music history in mind that I wanted to dig into the immediately post Blue / Pinkerton discography of Weezer, and attempt to refocus an appropriate amount of shine onto their most overlooked album, Maladroit.

Produced by former Cars front-man Ric Ocasek and released just over two years after the band formed, the first Weezer album is self-titled, but fans know it affectionately as The Blue Album thanks to the monochromatic cover which itself was something of an homage to The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms (totally worth checking out if a slightly more angular version of Weezer’s nerdy rock sounds like your cup of tea). It was 10 tracks of wonderfully weird pop rock that zipped along in a tidy 40 minute run-time. Songs about how best to destroy a sweater (it represents emotional defenses, bruh!) rubbed shoulders with songs with protagonists that look like Buddy Holly, and the whole thing ended with the 8 minute “Only In Dreams” which, if you’re a fella that has never played that song for a crush then I call into doubt your whole comprehension of what LOVE constitutes. It took a little while, and one of the most memorable music videos ever made, but a little over a year after its release, Blue had been certified platinum, setting the band up for what would be one of the most resplendent sophomore “slumps” in music history.

In the years after Blue was released, when most bands on that level of fame would be focusing on not losing musical momentum, Rivers managed to record (and subsequently scrap) an entire sci-fi rock opera called “Songs From The Black Hole”, bits of which would eventually dribble out on his three “Alone” demo collections, subjected himself to an elaborate and painful surgery that would lengthen his right leg which resulted in long periods where he was immobilized in a hospital bed, and then enrolled in classical composition classes at, of all places, Harvard University. Throughout this time, Rivers had started obsessively listening to Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, his feelings of depression and insecurity fleshing out the pseudo skeleton that the opera provided for what would become Weezer’s second album, the self-produced Pinkerton. While it would eventually find an audience of diehard fans among the Weezer faithful and land on just about every list of “top albums from the 90s“, it was a total flop from a business perspective initially, peaking at 19 on the Billboard charts, with singles that went nowhere compared to the success that came so easily just a couple of years earlier. It’s not hard to see why folks who bought Blue for “Buddy Holly” took a while to come around to the band’s edgier and comparatively more complex lyrical content which including the fear of seeing a squandered youth in the eventual rear-view of life (“The Good Life”), all the gorey (and gooey) feels of unrequited love, and a song titled “Tired Of Sex”. It must have felt felt a little like a bait and switch to a lot of folks. It’s rare for a pop artist to make something they don’t expect people will like, and Rivers, being no exception, was caught totally unawares by the fallout from the record, calling it “a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won't go away” in 2001. It would be a little less than five years until Weezer would put out another album, having licked their wounds to attempt something of a return to their less commercially bleak Blue roots.

After a long hiatus, Weezer “reformed” minus original bassist Matt Sharp , who was replaced by Mikey Welch, to re-team with Blue album producer Ric Ocasek and record what would eventually be another self-titled effort but everyone would refer to as The Green Album. By the time that Green was released in the spring of 2001, , the album that had been pretty much been disowned by its creator as an embarrassing failure, had taken on a life of its own, becoming massively beloved by a dedicated chunk of the fanbase that had actually given it a chance.

I skipped school to buy The Green Album on the day it came out. My journey to the record store became some weird adventure where I had to help my friend’s grandmother volunteer at an assisted living center before she would take him to a bank to set up a checking account for him so he could actually buy the album with me. It was a weird day, to say the least, and we eventually ended up in trouble with our high school principal over the whole thing, all so we could be the first of our friends to own Weezer’s mighty return from dormancy. What we got once we tossed the disc into a boombox was 28 minutes of music that did not immediately feel like it was worth all that hassle. Sure, it’s a fine-enough record in retrospect, with some solid tracks (check out ”Photograph” below), but it was just so over-produced and... manufactured feeling. The whole thing just felt like it was trying so hard to be everything Pinkerton was not. This was the straight-laced bunch of guys who gave us “Buddy Holly”, after all, and now we were being forced to consume a song called “Hash Pipe”? It sold well enough, I guess to make Rivers feel like he had maybe managed to salvage his musical career, but it was an album by a band we didn’t think we knew anymore. The roots of Weezer 2.0, the band that would eventually give the world plastic mega-hits like “Beverly Hills” and “Pork & Beans”, can be traced back to  The Green Album and everything it represents in their career.

And now we come to Maladroit. When you think of bands as having metaphorically died in plane crashes after their creative zeniths, what you get is a perfectly preserved idealized body of work, unsullied by whatever that band would become. What you lose though are the subtleties of oddball albums that are on the edges of their discography and the joy of seeing the crazy arc of a whole career. Just like the pendulum of Weezer’s soul dramatically swung from the weirdo-populist bliss of The Blue Album to the aggressively explored alienation and self-doubt that ended up being Pinkerton, so the pendulum went back from the over the top forced-feeling and ultimately empty attempt that The Green Album made to please everyone to the last gasp of album-length inner turmoil that was Maladroit. It’s not unlike the general understanding that every even numbered Star Trek movie is gonna be generally good, while the odd numbered ones are varying degrees of crap, or something like that.

Right from the cover you know it’s a departure from the safety net of a “The INSERT COLOR NAME HERE Album”, (which they would eventually revert to with 2008’s The Red Album following the critical drubbing that Make Believe got). Maladroit’s cover, chosen from album art contest submissions, features a miniaturized look at a clean cut young man reading a book in what would pass as your grandmother's parlor perhaps. There’s a candy dish on the table next to a pea-soup-green couch, and on the wall is the sort of still-life study of fruit that you’d find in any mid-priced motel. The colors are drab and muted, which is a 90 degree turn from the electric lime green of the album released just one year earlier. There’s no image of the band on the cover and the album title (also suggested by a fan) means “ineffective or bungling.” Like Pinkerton, the album was self-produced but, as you can see from the source of the title and album artwork, the band bent over backwards this time to allow the album to be have the fingerprints of Weezer fans all over it.

The band, being way ahead of the curve with their profoundly fan-friendly website, posted dozens of different iterations of songs to their then-bustling message board (frustrating their label to no end), letting fans point out things they liked about certain versions of songs, and the “Good-Life”-lite-sounding “Slob” would have totally fallen by the wayside, had the fans not specifically requested its inclusion. Maladroit has heavier metal-influenced riffs than either Blue or Pinkerton (first single “Dope Nose” being the biggest offender), which would be the way of pretty much every Weezer album to come after it, but the subject matter hews much closer to the interior studies found on Pinkerton. It has its share of obvious singles, but it goes against the grain more often than not, and the best of those, “Keep Fishin”, managed to avoid the over-the-top diabetes triggering saccharine-sweetness of “Island In The Sun”’s puppy-parade by bringing The Muppets into the mix.

The problem with the album, though, is that it never fully unpacks its emotions. While a song like “Death & Destruction”, whose lyrics in their entirety are “I can't say / That you love me / So I cry / And I'm hurting / Every time / That I call you / You find some / Way to ditch me / So I learned to turn / And look the other way”, feels like the songwriting equivalent of changing the font, margins, and text size on a book report so it makes the bare minimum of required pages, it's bleeding-heart is in the right place. Once you can manage to get past the ridiculous (horrendous?) title of “Burndt Jamb”, it unpacks like a series of broken-hearted haikus (“And the water / Running over / Me is growing / Ever colder”). Maladroit ends on a gorgeous final note with the song "December", getting about as close to an "Only In Dreams" vibe as the band ever would, with the line “Only trust / Can inspire / Soggy lungs / To breathe fire” being a hopeful and empowered coda to the record.

Lots of fans have rightfully pegged Blue and Pinkerton as the Weezer albums most worthy of permanently installing in the pop-rock canon, but to put the band on a doom-bound plane right after those two albums is to do yourself a great disservice or, at the very least, deprive yourself of an official Weezer branded snuggie (yes, really...). There have been glimpses of early-greatness Weezer in the past few years, especially with their most recent album, last years Everything Will Be Alright in the End (hell, even the new single “Thank God For Girls” ain’t too shabby if you can get past the fact that a 45 year old man wrote a song with that title), but Maladroit is the album of theirs that bears the most fruit for Pinkerton lovers upon revisiting, if you ever visited it the first place.

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Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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