Most artists inevitably grapple with what critics term “the anxiety of the influence” — the frustrating sense that nothing new can be created because the most influential have already charted all viable artistic ground. Because of this weight, the artist wages a psychological war against the tide of their influences to assert their own aesthetic, reaping the timeless techniques devised by their elders while simultaneously uncovering something revelatory. This process typically entails some imitative period wherein the artist mimes the work of their predecessors before making something truly original. Before Fleetwood Mac was Fleetwood Mac, they were one of the many middling groups influenced by the Byrds. Before Outkast was Outkast, they were a couple of Atlanta teens trading Funkadelic tapes. However, in recent years, the usual interplay of influence and creativity has curiously broken down. In Retromania, the music critic Simon Reynolds attempts to explain the kind of creative atrophy that afflicts today’s musicians, arguing that artists’ lightning accessibility to older music through music publications and streaming services hems in their capacity for innovation. Contemporary music, Reynolds contends, simply aspires to replicate other artists’ work and, consequently, marks something more akin to a book report than art — a familiar trend given how preoccupied our era’s neoliberalized kids are with checking demarcated boxes.
Weezer’s “Teal Album,” the power-pop outfit’s twelfth studio LP, tragically exemplifies this cultural nadir, serving simultaneously as a pitch-perfect record of bygone music and the band’s worst release to date. In the 1990s, the band promised so much more than the sterile production and flaccid guitar noodling that currently pollute their music. They produced art, which approached the power-pop canon charted by greats like the Cars, Big Star and early Weezer’s near-contemporary Teenage Fanclub. Given power-pop’s inherent indifference relative to more accomplished and explicitly political genres (i.e. jazz, punk and everything in between on Sun Ra’s discography), this was a relatively easy hurdle for the band to clear — provided they channel that irresistible conveyor, melody. Though universally impaired by a conservative commitment to cut-and-paste guitar riffs and too well produced to sound anything other than stilted next to their ’60s source material, the best power-pop has long excelled at melody. All of the genre’s shrill choruses and awkward guitar bits coalesce behind tuneful melodies that manage to be much more compelling than any of their component parts.
The best work by Weezer — found almost exclusively on 1994’s “Blue Album” and 1996’s “Pinkerton” — suggests power-pop’s strengths and failings. The impeccable melodies found in such classic cuts as “Buddy Holly” and “El Scorcho” — familiar to anyone that came of age to Guitar Hero and the now-primordial FM alternative rock station — were still tempered by tired guitar sounds and sophomoric song-writing whose misogynistic, orientalist overtones warrant much more criticism than the band’s fans let on. Still, there’s something comforting in Cuomo’s early lyricism, which at least registers more sincerely than the forced earnestness imparted to us by the wave of bedroom pop released in Frankie Cosmos’s wake. “Pinkerton,” the former dark horse favorite, marked the most radical reconfiguration of the power-pop aesthetic and a true conquering of “the anxiety of the influence.” The song offered listeners a tour-de-force that traded power-pop’s slick production for an unadulterated firestorm still unrivaled in the genre. Listening to “Blue” and “Pinkerton” now produces a kind of madeleine effect for me, one conducive to a fuzzy headrush that is complexly undercut by a recollection of the loneliness that characterized the middle school days in which I first encountered Weezer’s music and of the awkwardness that has plagued Cuomo’s entire life up to this point, apparently.
2001’s “Green Album” delivered more of the same, albeit with a certain detachment. By its release, Weezer had effectively abandoned their nascent progression and innovation, aping all the strategies that had catapulted them to success while simultaneously shedding the more sludgy and guttural sounds that had made releases like “Pinkerton” more than just the sum of the band’s influences. In a move that preempts the vanilla attempts at emulating “Blue,” the album art of “Green” recalls the seminal posturing of the group on “Blue,” which is the first evidence of the band’s inclination towards imitation. Though the band performing on “Green” does faintly sound like the band that brought us “Blue,” listening to the album still feels like looking at a picture of a Bruegel painting (or, more appropriately, the work of a lesser artist) on your friend’s iPhone — an experience that seeks to mirror the consumption of the source material while falling impossibly short of capturing the sound of early Weezer.
The “Red” and “White” albums that followed “Green” only extended the trend of colored LPs that harken superficially to the band’s roots, with “Teal” comprising the fifth and latest iteration. Betraying the original by a few hues, the color of “Teal” resembles the off-color .jpeg cover of the “Blue” album that one would pirate from Limewire back in the day. The two albums’ chromatic similarity formally illustrates the band’s internalization of the past, the fruitlessness of which resounds across every note on the album. As a cover album, “Teal” tries to painstakingly recreate songs drawn largely from the 1980s synth-pop catalog, including well-worn hits such as “Africa,” whose cover has since become one of the many bloated memes Weezer has driven to the graveyard. While missing indie’s own fixation on the ’80s by just a few years — a predictable misstep given how behind the curve Weezer has always been — they unequivocally succeed at this project of recreation. Every vocal track and synth line sounds uncannily like its source, contributing to a weird similarity that owes itself to the considerable energy and deliberateness expended by the band. According to the iTunes Editor’s Notes for the LP, Cuomo reportedly spent upwards of seven hours trying to accurately sing “Billie Jean”: a literalistic way of covering music that at once precisely mimics its source material and excises all of its soul and flair. Instead of an ecstatic reconfiguration of Electric Light Orchestra, for instance, listeners are subject to what essentially amounts to the lifeless, robotic din of a karaoke machine’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” fatuous backing track and all.
In light of this, the record only intrigues through its intensely artificial design. The snake’s tail in mouth at last, Weezer has finally divined what has been in the stars for them since “Green,” creating a work completely devoid of the ego and imaginative impulse that drives everything that could possibly be deemed art. In one of the more salient criticisms published about the group, the writer Saby Reyes-Kulkarni remarked on Weezer’s ability to conjure “a feeling of being nowhere.” Reyes-Kulkarni cited the band’s attempt at crafting a Californian aesthetic on their 2017 LP “Pacific Daydream,” which sooner resembles a record birthed by a personality-less, purgatorial clone of the Beach Boys than a new album by the “Buddy Holly” guys with Big Sur imagery. “Teal” similarly sounds like nowhere at all, evoking for me the functional atmosphere of a dental office’s waiting room. If this really is the future of music, God help us.