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Say It Ain’t So: Weezer’s landmark ‘Blue Album’ turns 25

Weezer's debut, self-titled album turns 25 this week but continues to inspire musicians today, even as the band strays ever further from its original sound. (Geffen Records)

Earlier this month, The Cure’s “Disintegration” turned 30. While that no doubt stirred a sudden awareness of mortality and the increasingly rapid passage of time for anyone old enough to have remembered the album when it was released, it also provides a shocking perspective for how much the rock music world changed over the ensuing five years. That’s because — yes, take a deep breath and brace yourself for the wave of nostalgia, followed by the undercurrent of existential dread that’s sure to follow — Weezer’s self-title “Blue Album” debut turns 25 Friday.

While Nirvana and Pearl Jam (and the surrounding Seattle grunge scene) are widely credited with ushering in a new direction of what radio stations still call “modern rock” at the beginning of the ‘90s, it was the broader wave of new music that crashed onto the shores of our ears in 1994 that took alternative into the mainstream.

Beck’s “Mellow Gold.” Soundgarden’s “Superunknown.” Green Day’s “Dookie.” Oasis’ “Definitely Maybe.” Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral.” The Cranberries’ “No Need to Argue.” Offspring’s “Smash.” Bush’s “Sixteen Stone.” If you grew up through this stretch, there’s probably a seminal album on your list that I’ve left out, which only goes to show how much of the zeitgeist was enraptured by this groundswell.

A number of the artists above are still making new music today. Beck has cemented himself as one of the leading songwriters of the last quarter century by zigging every time the broader culture zags, continuing to stay one foot outside the lanes, wherever they’re going. Green Day captured an entire new generation of young, poppy punks with 2004’s “American Idiot.” But Weezer has just churned along, still making eponymous records with the band’s lineup staged across different colored backdrops. In contrast, while their style has morphed over the years, their original album still stands taller than any newer efforts, and still feels the most timeless of the music of 1994.

It’s funny to think their debut was seen as poseurish among their peers at the time. But nerd/geek rock didn’t really have a mainstream foothold until the opening riffs of “My Name Is Jonas” came bursting onto the scene just 35 days after Kurt Cobain’s shocking death. The songs are instantly accessible in the way that all good pop music is, catchy and earwormy, prompting singalongs of the most popular tracks even today in a party or bar setting.

But its staying power hearkens to something more than a collection of catchy tunes. Dismissed by some as unserious, it’s pretty funny to see how Weezer’s initial offering was characterized by some critics at the time, particularly Billboard, which called it “full of humorous and fun lyrics about simple things in life, like beer on “Say It Ain’t So” and jealously on “No One Else.”

The album’s peppy, almost jubilant feel belies an actually much darker undercurrent of the lyrics themselves. Perhaps that was why it was dismissed, even reviled at first by some, a reality hard to imagine after the passage of a quarter century. Instead of the crashing dissonance of sound to match the pain, frontman and primary songwriter Rivers Cuomo brings upbeat, bright melodies. In the three most popular, lasting songs of the album — “Buddy Holly,” “Undone — The Sweater Song,” and “Say It Ain’t So” — he sings about the fraught nature of an interracial friendship; of the helpless end of a relationship, clinging for whatever’s left; of his alcoholic father and stepfather, and of the twice broken family of his childhood (not, you know, beer). These all became widely recognizable singalongs, but make no mistake — they are not happy songs.

Perhaps that’s why it took a while to unpack the Blue Album, but also why it has stood the test of time, even where Weezer’s follow-ups haven’t. In fact, that Billboard description much more aptly fits everything that’s come since “Pinkerton,” after which there is a chasm so smoldering and fraught within the band’s fan base that Saturday Night Live devoted an entire sketch to it.

But regardless of the levels of success Weezer has had since 1994, so much of what has come since feels informed and influenced by that year, and particularly by the Blue Album. Contemporaries from The Aquabats, to Nerf Herder, to Wheatus laid the groundwork for the adolescent angstiness of the emo turn of the aughts, like Jimmy Eat World, Saves The Day, and even Panic! At the Disco, a band with whom Weezer would later tour.

It’s pretty funny that Weezer has released two albums in 2019, one a set of covers that sounds pretty much exactly how you’d expect a set of Weezer covers to sound, and another of originals, which sound so far from what Weezer once was that it’s hard to believe they’re from the same band. But that’s the real, lasting legacy of the Blue Album: Weezer may not sound much like themselves anymore, but so many other artists do.

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