Whenever I listen to Weezer, I can’t help but think of that most sadistic of elementary-school activities, dodgeball. And it’s not just because they — leader Rivers Cuomo in particular — look like the least athletic kids in the class. When Weezer re-emerged in 2000 after a long, torturous layoff and found themselves in a world of rap-metal and the like, their clean-cut nerd rock seemed like it would’ve been creamed — just like all the skinny kids who get decimated in dodgeball. Instead, last year’s ”Weezer” was greeted as a triumphant return; the twerp caught the killer rubber ball and knocked the bully out of the game, at least temporarily.
On Maladroit, Cuomo does his victory strut around the gym. The album marks the arrival of a new, feistier Weezer. Emboldened by a comeback that was as unexpected as any in pop, freshly appreciated as founding fathers of that increasingly nebulous genre known as emo, they’re flexing their enhanced muscles.
For months they were at loggerheads with their record company over various issues, such as their sending early versions of new songs to press and radio without telling the label. With his new mountain-mensch beard, Cuomo was like a computer geek holed up in the hills, railing against the evil corporations that employ him.
The songs present the same old conflicted Cuomo: Girlfriends dump him, making him lovesick and wistful, looking to them for rescue, and people hassle him with berating phone messages (”Get yourself a wife/Get yourself a job,” in ”Slob”). Yet the music is rarely so winsome. ”Maladroit” is imbued with the brashness, confidence, and oddness of the band’s recent actions.
Pushy and borderline obnoxious, ”Maladroit” lives up to Cuomo’s comments about wanting to make a Kiss-style rave-up, which goes hand in hand with the band playing ever-bigger halls since last year. The songs are built on loud, wrecking-ball riffs that snarl and flail — Cuomo and company sound like a bunch of teenagers who’ve just learned to play along with an AC/DC album — and the band rushes through the 13 tracks as if they couldn’t wait to finish one and start another. (Like its predecessor, ”Maladroit” clocks in at just over a half hour.) Cuomo shows off his fleet-fingered guitar chops, shredding and tossing off serpentine solos at every turn. And there’s nothing ironic about any of it; like the straight-faced concerts they now give (the days of sarcastic dry-ice fog are over), Weezer appear to be dead serious about rocking out.
Unfortunately, Cuomo hasn’t come up with enough quality material to match his god-of-thunder conceit. ”Maladroit” is dominated by songs that are heavy, man but feel slight or unfinished, like ”Burndt Jamb,” built on a disco riff, and ”Space Rock,” a gripe about children that barely makes it to two minutes. In an interview last winter, Cuomo told me, ”I guess my best stuff is when I write about whatever is bothering me. So right now it’ll mostly be songs about my fans.” It was hard to tell how much he was joking. But a new petulant strain can be heard on ”Maladroit,” as when he seems to take a swipe at his fanatical audience in ”American Gigolo” (”If you hate this/No, I can’t blame you”) or bitches about ”All the bull/That people sling” in ”Love Explosion.” Melodies rise up and proclaim themselves only to be mowed down by the band’s guitar army.
The willfully idiosyncratic Cuomo is heading into an interesting place: He’s a young curmudgeon, a borderline crank, who nonetheless wants to be a player. For all his complaints about not wanting to be part of a big-money corporation, the band seemed very much at home playing arenas on its winter tour, and perhaps cranking up the volume is Cuomo’s way of ensuring his band can be competitive with the new-punk likes of Sum 41. Yet the fun of Weezer’s ”Hash Pipe” was hearing a bunch of seeming wimps pounding hard, tongue only partly in cheek. After the moodiness of 1996’s ”Pinkerton,” the song’s embrace of hard-rock cheese felt liberating, both for the band and us. Such moments still pop up on ”Maladroit”: ”Slave” truly makes you believe power pop can save the world, and ”Take Control” blends a craggy-tooth Southern-rock riff and their high-altitude harmonies into a joyful pounder. But in the main, Cuomo is hurling the dodgeball back at us when a gentler toss would work just as well.