Marillion’s new album is called Fuck Everyone and Run.
If you wanted a clear sign that 2016 is one of the bleakest years ever, there it is. Marillion, traditionally one of the most thoughtful and hopeful bands on the planet, has chosen that title for their forthcoming 18th opus. And I believe Steve Hogarth when he says that the title phrase is sung in sadness, as a resigned condemnation of the self-centered and cynical world. I hope they let some light get in, but man, it’s a gray-toned year.
No album recently has epitomized that bleakness like Painting of a Panic Attack, the fifth record from Scottish band Frightened Rabbit. I was very much looking forward to it, after the powerhouse that was Pedestrian Verse, but I find I can barely listen to it. Part of the problem is that it was produced by Aaron Dressner of the National, whose sonic palette seems to be deliberately designed to grate on my nerves. Dressner has washed out all the verve here, leaving the band sounding half-awake, and the band has responded by writing some of their most boring, most National-esque songs. The preponderance of electronics don’t really help or hurt – they’re not bold enough to count as a change in style, they’re kind of just there, like the rest of this.
Combine that with an unrelenting first-person dreariness on songs like “I Wish I Was Sober” and “Woke Up Hurting” and “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” and “Die Like a Rich Boy” and “Break,” and it just gets overwhelmingly gray. Only “Still Want to Be Here” allows any optimism, but the sound, beige and listless, remains. The album is a dark cloud that the band sounds lost in, and it doesn’t make for a rewarding listen.
It’s especially oppressive lately, when here in Chicagoland, the weather has been gorgeous.
I took time out from work yesterday to indulge in a three-mile walk outside. I spent quite a bit of time last night just hanging out looking at the sky. Spring is finally here, and in fact we seem to have vaulted spring and headed straight for summer. If I wore shorts, I would be wearing shorts. It’s the kind of weather you dream about.
And that means it’s time to put away the drearier things for a while and lighten up. Of course, we’re living in a society that considers Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to be a frothy summer film. I get depressed just reading about it. It’s not just Frightened Rabbit darkening up the music world, either. This week PJ Harvey returned with a difficult record about injustice and crumbling communities. Even Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are getting serious on their new one. I’m rather loving the new Colin Stetson record, but it’s called Sorrow, for pity’s sake.
So what do we need, right now? We need Weezer.
I know, I know. Conventional wisdom holds that no one has needed Weezer since 1996 or so. Look, I love the Blue Album and Pinkerton as much as anyone (well, maybe not anyone), but to write off the nine albums since is to erase from history some of the best jaunty guitar pop of the past 20 years. Rivers Cuomo clearly exorcised some personal demons on Pinkerton, although it really isn’t the heart-on-sleeve masterpiece that many people claim. And since the band re-formed in 2001, he’s been on a mission to have as much fun as possible.
I say he’s done it. Has any band enjoyed the ride they’re on as much as Weezer has? From the first post-Pinkerton album, Cuomo has displayed a devil-may-care attitude about his own work. That waned somewhat when he shot for hit singles on Make Believe and the Red Album, but even those disasterpieces were flippant and funny and contained some gems. (I adore “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived,” for instance.)
You never know what you’re going to get with Weezer, and Cuomo seems to fly by instinct most of the time. He’ll duet with Lil’ Wayne one moment and get Michael Cera to play mandolin the next. He’ll call a song about missing his socks “Where’s My Sex.” He’ll put out a record called Death to False Metal. He’ll sing about girls from high school who grew up hot, and then about lonely robots. And through it all, he remains exuberantly tuneful, writing sharp and hooky pop songs and playing them through cranked-up amps.
I have been on the post-Pinkerton Weezer train for longer than many of my fellow critics (I loved and still love Raditude, one of the band’s most reviled), but lately I think people are starting to come around. Two years ago Cuomo led his merry band through one of their tightest and most solid outings, Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and now he’s followed it up with Weezer’s fourth self-titled effort, this one destined to be called the White Album. (Ballsy, that.) This new one is rightly being lauded, and I’m happy to see that.
Because the White Album is, at first glance, 34 minutes of sun-dappled fun. It’s a California album bedazzled with Brian Wilson “ooh-ooohs” and songs with titles like “L.A. Girlz” and “Do You Wanna Get High.” It’s largely music to play beach volleyball to. But this isn’t the forced fun of “Beverly Hills.” There’s a realism to the White Album that fans of those first two monoliths should appreciate. This is a record about summer narrated by a lovestruck, fearful misfit, one who just wants everything to work out. When it does work out, this record is resplendent. It’s an album by someone who knows that Brian Wilson was the saddest songwriter who ever pretended to surf away his troubles.
Has Cuomo ever sounded as upbeat and content as he does on the Wilson-orama “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing”? The production is Weezer meets Pet Sounds, Cuomo letting lines like “just a couple love birds, happy to be singing” roll off his tongue. But then here’s a darker bridge, in which he shouts, “You know you scare me like an open window.” “Wind in Our Sail” is unrelentingly sunny, firing off references to Darwin and Mendel and Sisyphus while pushing forward into a lovely future. And “King of the World” is hopeful and triumphant, an anthem about overcoming pain and fear by sticking together. “If I was king of the world, you’d be my girl, you wouldn’t have to shed one single tear unless you wanted to…”
Yeah, this record does drift into darker corners here and there. “Do You Wanna Get High” is not the non-stop party it seems – it’s about addiction, Cuomo speaking directly to the drugs: “I’ll never get tired of you.” “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is an epic (well, a 3:25 epic) about fumbling, awkward attraction. I can’t even believe how much I like “Jacked Up” – my incredulity stemming at least partially from the fact that it’s called “Jacked Up” – a piano-led singalong about loss and dead flowers. And closer “Endless Bummer” is just what it sounds like, an acoustic campfire tune for the final days of a vacation that hasn’t gone as planned. “I just want the summer to end…”
The thing is, if you’re not paying attention to the sad undercurrent, you might never know it’s there. These songs are vintage Weezer, buoyant and memorable, masking insecurity and heartache with bold melodies and big guitars and an optimism that won’t stop. It’s often incredibly silly – the lyrics to “Thank God for Girls” are a wandering tale of cannolis and dragons and tender loving kisses on stab wounds and Adam in the Garden of Eden. (It’s kind of amazing.) And the whole record puts a big, warm smile on my face.
And that’s the bottom line for me right now: I want to roll my windows down and play this record. I want to dance to “Wind in Our Sail” and “(Girl We Got a) Good Thing.” It’s summer, and in 2016, the year of near-constant death and Donald Trump, this record counts as the feel-good hit I need. Yeah, it’s often sad and scary and it ends on a down note, but man, I’ll take it. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the road is open. Off we go.
Next week, purveyors of pretty noise. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.