Rivers Cuomo: “Alone II: The Home Recordings”
Rivers Cuomo is known for his goofy sense of humor and his self-conscious geekiness– and yet, for all of that, he comes across as a pretty serious guy sometimes. The by-now infamous narrative about the Weezer frontman is that, ever since the release of the band’s odd, unconventional sophomore album, Pinkerton— an album that defied expectations and initially met with derision, though its reputation has grown by leaps and bounds since then– Cuomo has simply been too tightly controlling and timid to allow anything other than carefully-crafted, cookie-cutter Weezer songs on his band’s albums, a narrative that certainly holds true for the band’s respectable comeback album, The Green Album, as well as its two lesser sequels, the so-so Maladroit and the abysmal Make Believe, and it even works with this year’s The Red Album, which, despite some really goofy and unexpected flourishes, was still an album marked by Cuomo’s very careful, methodical sense of craft. And that gets to the heart of what post-Pinkerton Weezer has been all about: Careful craft designed to give the impression of frivolity and silliness.
If the Weezer albums were all we had to go on, that would be a pretty accurate narrative, but, thankfully, Cuomo’s series of “home recordings”– last year’s Alone and this year’s anticlimactically-titled Alone II— show that the Weezer mastermind is just a bit more complicated than that: He’s serious about his craft, but he’s seriously goofy, too. The Alone albums offer fascinating insights into the mind and the creative process of a true craftsman, showing how hard Cuomo has worked to study and refine his understanding of pop music over the years, but they also differ from the albums he does with his band because of their unpolished nature, the way they revel in their roughness and allow Cuomo to release some truly odd material that he’d never allow himself to put on a proper Weezer album.
That’s the appeal of these discs– well, in theory, anyway. Truth is, the first Alone album was interesting on an academic level, as a case study of the creative process, but didn’t work particularly well as an album, as most of the material was unremarkable as pure music. And to that end, its sequel is a bit of a curiosity, because it’s both rougher and less polished even than the first disc, yet it also holds up much better as an album. Feeling even more like the odds-and-sods collection that it is, thanks to a slightly greater preponderance of short song snippets and instrumental passages, it is, nevertheless, a more compelling listening experience than its predecessor. Better-sequenced and with higher-quality songs mixed in amongst the general weirdness, the album naturally feels very quirky and homespun, which is what makes it appealing: A few really terrific gems are buried amidst the flood of short little sketches, which are so brief that they fly by quickly, giving the album a pleasantly rough, sketchbook quality that works precisely because it revels in its roughness and lack of finish.
There are no proto-Weezer tracks here, like the last album’s early demo of “Buddy Holly,” but there are a few more snippets from the unfinished Songs from the Black Hole album, a Beach Boys cover, and plenty of Cuomo at his uninhibited best. There are some really bizarre moments here that could never exist on a Weezer album– like the geeky marching band sound of the instrumental opener, “Victory on the Hill,” and the dark organ swells of the weird “The Purification of Water,” plus the operatic snippets from the faux-conceptual Songs from the Black Hole— but there are also some really enjoyable, vintage Cuomo numbers: The crunching rock and sexual anxiety make “I Want to Take You Home Tonight” feel like it could have fit on Pinkerton, a few gloriously lo-fi cuts like “I Admire You So Much” and “Paper Face” rock harder and sound rougher than any Weezer songs in recent memory, “Can’t Stop Partying” boasts a nervous, druggy drag, and “My Brain is Working Overtime,” with its pounding pianos and lyrics about anxiety, make it feel like an instant Cuomo classic. And that’s to say nothing of the soulful, R&B flavor of “Walt Disney,” one of the album’s most joyfully unexpected and bewildering songs.
Of course, for every gem, there’s at least one completely baffling little moment of weirdness or throw-away demo that leave no doubt as to why Cuomo never put them on a Weezer record, but that’s half the fun here, the way the songs fly by so quickly in a glorious mess of brilliance and excess. It simply works better than the first Alone, and it makes one hope Cuomo will truly loosen up for the next Weezer album; The Red Album proved that he’s still capable of stretching his craft in exciting new directions, but Alone II proves that he’s at his best when he’s at his messiest and most uninhibited.