Today is Halloween, and the weather is appropriately cold and grey.
There are hints of rain, and enough of a chill in the air that stepping outside without a coat is a guaranteed one-way ticket to sniffleville. Two weeks ago the weather was scorching – between 90 and 100 degrees, sun beating down oppressively, making the case for climate change all by itself. But now it’s the dead of winter, weather that could justifiably be called miserable.
We didn’t get an autumn this year, is what I’m saying. We jumped straight from a summer that lasted through mid-October into a shivery winter, its icy tendrils already prophesying the coming snow. (In fact, some reports say we’re getting snow next week.) It’s been a shock to the system, and I know I’m not alone in feeling cheated. I grew up in New England, where fall lasts two months or so. Two months of lovely red and yellow and brown leaves decorating the trees, of pumpkin patches and apple cider. It may be my favorite season, and we’ve been robbed of it.
If we’d been granted an autumn, Weezer’s new album might not seem so strange. But it is into this frigid wasteland of an early winter that Rivers Cuomo has seen fit to release Pacific Daydream, the band’s twelfth album (if you count Death to False Metal, which I certainly do). As you can probably tell from the title, this record takes the summery vibe of last year’s White Album even further. This is 30 minutes of cruising-with-the-top-down pop, more appropriate for palm trees and beach parties than the scarf-and-mittens weather into which it’s been dropped.
Let’s be real, though: this doesn’t even crack the top ten weirdest choices Weezer has made. I love that we’re 23 years into their career and they remain not only prolific, but unpredictable. For Pacific Daydream the band worked with Butch Walker, who also produced their silly yet wonderful Raditude. The tone here is not dissimilar – if you’re one of those people who remains emotionally invested in Pinkerton and hates it when Cuomo lets his ridiculous pop instincts take center stage, well, sorry. You’re gonna hate this.
I love it. Weezer’s been on a hot streak for a while with me, and Pacific Daydream is their third album in a row that I would rank among my favorites. It’s glossier than the White Album, more intricately produced, more crafted for immediate pleasure. The lyrics are all effervescent and lighter than air. The first song, “Mexican Fender,” hangs on the line “my summer love, oo-ee-oo,” and the third song is called “Feels Like Summer.” It is exactly the kind of record you think it is. It goes down smooth and easy, and is only interested in making you feel good for half an hour.
Which sounds like something I’d hate, but for the fact that Cuomo is so very, very good at this kind of thing. These songs are so hummable, so delightful that I can’t help singing along, and even doing little dances. Cuomo’s ode to the “Beach Boys” is a lovely thing, incorporating some Wilson-esque harmonies. “Turn it up, it’s the Beach Boys, singing out in a sweet voice…” “Weekend Woman” is a sweet tale of love with “no time for poetry” but plenty of time for a wonderful bridge, and “Happy Hour” is encouraging and sweet: “I need happy hour on sad days.” The band is typically anonymous, disappearing behind these bite-sized morsels, playing exactly what Cuomo’s tunes need.
Sure, if you grew up with “The Sweater Song” and “Tired of Sex,” these tunes might seem lightweight. But they’re lightweight on purpose, and beautifully so. I would love it if Brian Wilson’s modern music sounded this much like Brian Wilson at his best – I can totally see his band killing “QB Blitz,” a harmony-drenched bit of sun-dappled yearning, and “Sweet Mary” takes on that Jeff Lynne quality. I just love these classic pop songs, and I love what Weezer and Walker have done with them. Pacific Daydream is another little winner, and a fun reminder of the summer we just bid farewell.
But there’s no denying that the blissful feel of Pacific Daydream doesn’t match the world outside our window. The sudden winter is a much more appropriate backdrop for Turn Out the Lights, the second album by songwriter Julien Baker. This 22-year-old is everywhere right now, playing her desperately sad songs on CBS Sunday Morning and A Prairie Home Companion. They fit the lonely chill of nights to come perfectly – in fact, they might be too sad to listen to alone.
Baker seemingly appeared out of nowhere two years ago, releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums I can remember, Sprained Ankle. Containing literally nothing but Baker’s guitar and voice, the record ached like a living thing, laying bare its author’s pain and promise. Turn Out the Lights, blessedly, is almost the same – the jump to Matador Records has only resulted in a slightly wider palette, a slightly more ambitious scope. The new songs are just as devastating, and perhaps more, since they crescendo more effectively, ebb and flow more convincingly.
Baker is only 22, which seems impossible, given the depth of feeling in every minute of this album. Its opening piano and strings quickly give way to her signature electric guitar and her forlorn, aching voice on “Appointments,” and within moments, you’re wrapped up in Baker’s spell. It’s almost oppressive – for 40 minutes, no light gets in, no joy. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” she sings, a sentiment that sets the tone for the record.
But it’s amazing that someone so young can weave a spell this effective, and sustain it. Her lyrics will resonate with anyone battling loneliness and trying to quiet the voice that tells them they’re no good, not worth it. The title track brings that battle to the fore: “I’d never do it, but it’s not a joke, I can’t tell the difference when I’m all alone… when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.” Her passionate shouts come from the depths of her soul.
Baker has said that while some of Turn Out the Lights is autobiographical, some of it relates the stories of people she knows. “Sour Breath” takes on mental illness and how difficult it is to remain afloat: “The harder I swim the faster I sink,” she repeats. Several songs, like “Televangelist,” find her playing piano, but not sacrificing an ounce of emotion to do so. “Televangelist” is one of several songs to address Baker’s complex thoughts about religion and guilt: “Am I a masochist, screaming televangelist clutching my crucifix of white noise and static, all my prayers are apologies, hold out a flare until you come for me…”
The stunning “Everything to Help You Sleep” opens up that box even more, Baker singing about the Holy Ghost speaking in Morse code and blaming herself for God’s silence: “If I scream a little louder I know you would have heard.” The chorus is amazing: “Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop, nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off, and everything supposed to help me sleep at night doesn’t help me sleep at night anymore…” She dreams of rewiring her brain and wonders if God made a mistake on “Happy to Be Here,” and when she sings “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me,” it breaks my heart.
But the album doesn’t kill me until “Hurt Less,” my vote for the best song Baker has yet written. It’s the one song on which she makes progress – she begins by singing about why she doesn’t wear seatbelts: she hopes to feel her body and soul float through the air after crashing through the windshield. And then she finds someone to talk to, someone to share with, and goddamn, I cry each time she gets to the concluding verse: “This year I started wearing safety belts when I’m driving, because when I’m with you I don’t have to think about myself, and it hurts less…” (And just when your heart can’t hold anymore, the strings. The strings!)
No other record so far this year hurts like this one hurts, and that emotional connection is Baker’s greatest strength. As I mentioned, she’s only 22, so she’ll only get better – her songs have a sameness to them that I hope she’ll outgrow. But when it comes to capturing true feeling, few do it as well as she does. As someone who has lived with depression for his entire life, a song like “Claws in Your Back” gets it down on tape with surprising accuracy, and heart-rending candor. Turn Out the Lights is a tough listen, and a powerful one, and a necessary one. In sharing her darkest hours, she helps us talk about ours, and that’s an incredible gift. I’m in awe of the way she uses it here, and how from the depths of winter she assures us that summer is possible.
That’s it for this week. Next week, who knows? Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.