Photo: Sean Murphy

“Don’t get mad at me, I’m just being honest,” Rivers Cuomo sings on Weezer’s latest self-titled, color-coded album, this one a Metallica/JAY-Z/Spinal Tap shade of black. (It’s the band’s sixth such foray including the near-simultaneously released covers-only Teal Album, and its 12th studio album of originals overall.) The melody of the song “I’m Just Being Honest” is lovely, a propulsive little ’80s-sounding tune with an instantly singable chorus. But it’s the sentiment at its core that feels tightly yoked to Weezer’s status as a straight-ahead rock band that’s nonetheless skilled in the art of making people mad.

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Out of context, the line sounds defensive and self-pitying—and truthfully, it sounds even more so in the song, as Cuomo dedicates a few verses to unwanted honesty about a fan’s shitty demo CD or a lady friend’s unflattering new haircut. (Paul Simon already addressed this particular brand of truth-telling in his decades-old song “Tenderness.”) Notably, there isn’t a verse about Weezer fans yearning for the freewheeling honesty of the 1996 album Pinkerton, then recoiling with disgust when the band actually follows its muse—not least because Cuomo only occasionally dips into that kind of direct self-reflection, and usually then, too, he disappoints some part of his audience by not reflecting the right way, or at the right time. The narrator of “I’m Just Being Honest” is having a whine, but on this particular record from this particular band, he might also have a point: Fame and fortune aside, maybe it’s not that easy being Weezer.

Not that the band—or, let’s be real, Rivers Cuomo—has always made it easy to listen to Weezer. The gulf between its best work and its worst is vast. It’s no wonder that the group was the subject of a buzzy Saturday Night Live sketch late last year, in which Leslie Jones and Matt Damon got into a comically vociferous debate about whether it was all over for Weezer after Pinkerton. Like SNL, the band has maintained a cultural foothold even as it is endlessly compared to its early years and often dismissed as irrelevant and embarrassingly uncool. Cuomo and company are at the point where even their throwaway larks, like that surprise covers album of ’80s and ’90s songs, are scrutinized for signs of how or why Rivers intends to torture those who love the 1994 Blue Album most of all.

The 2019 Black Album offers little such insight, and like most of Weezer’s albums, comparisons to 1994 do it no favors. It’s best heard in the context of the band’s previous two proper records, 2017’s Pacific Daydream and 2016’s White Album, with which it forms a loose and seemingly informal California trilogy. Listened to straight through, it all kicks off with White’s “California Kids” and ends with Black’s “California Snow,” with plenty of songs about Los Angeles, the beach, and traffic in between.

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The newest record’s approach to a Cali vibe largely eschews the band’s typical crunchy-rock sound. Given Cuomo’s much-documented youthful metal fixation, you might expect his Black Album to go heavier on riffage, but many of the songs pair acoustic guitar or piano with processed-sounding instrumentation and odd little whooshes of sound effects. “Living In L.A.” has an ’80s beat, along with a reading of the line “feel so lonely” that’s clearly intended to shout out The Police. “The Prince Who Wanted Everything” is a bouncy, catchy chronicle of the musician who “tried to save the world with funk-rock riffs,” complete with crisp handclaps, delightful horn accents, and about as much insight into the impact or psychology of Prince as you’d expect from Weezer.

Producer Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio member, Yeah Yeah Yeahs collaborator, and Beverly Hills resident) doesn’t let any of this feel like nostalgia fetishism. Despite all the moving parts, there’s plenty of breathing room on songs like “High As A Kite,” a ballad that serves as a reminder that Cuomo can compete with ace melodicists (and similarly uneven lyricists) like Ben Folds or Noel Gallagher, or “Byzantine,” a sweet, shuffling love song (which nonetheless starts off with a goofy dig at Neil Young’s obsession with audio fidelity). This is a darker-than-average Weezer record, but it comes at that material with a lighter-than-expected touch to accompany the lyrics about loneliness and isolation.

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Talk of a lonely, isolated Rivers Cuomo, who in his forever-teenage way has even taken up consistent swearing, will entice plenty of fans to think of that long-awaited and never-to-be New Pinkerton. Weezer’s lyrics do feel more specific and thought-through on Black than, say, Make Believe, but even at their most melancholy, they rarely scan as directly confessional as they did back in 1996. Much of their material from the past 15 years, good and bad, is more apt to express (intentionally or not) the tension between what Cuomo thinks his audience wants or expects, and what he thinks he wants to give them. The cynical read of this would be that Cuomo is both hugely calculating and deeply inept at performing those calculations, but the experiments and strange asides on The Black Album don’t come across as trend-chasing so much as genuinely eclectic.

Eclecticism is probably not what a lot of people are looking for in a Weezer record, considering that past efforts with this quality also tended to veer wildly off course. (Raditude, the go-to whipping boy of the band’s discography, starts with one of Weezer’s best singles before careening into ill-advised cameos from Lil Wayne, a sitar, and the mall.) “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” The Black Album’s lead-off track and single, is probably its designated WTF moment, with its Spanish chorus, mariachi horn riff, funk samples, and speak-sing verses all sounding like a nerd trying to perform an Avalanches song himself. “Hustle”’s chief competitor comes with album closer “California Snow,” which features straight-up rapping that sounds specifically like Cuomo paying homage or possible making fun of a downtempo Kanye West track. As far as boldly misguided Weezer songs go, they’re both worlds above the sing-song-y “We Are All On Drugs” from Make Believe, but not quite at the so-weird-it’s-great level of “Thank God For Girls” from The White Album.

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In general, The Black Album lacks a highlight as clear and clean as Pacific Daydream’s “Mexican Fender” or “Weekend Woman,” much less the consistency of White or, heaven forbid, Blue. Cuomo remains equally likely to stumble across a seemingly tongue-in-cheek line that becomes oddly evocative (“Leave a five-star review and I’ll leave you one too”) or build an entire, repetitive song around a single semi-clever notion (like the girl who “cut [him] like a piece of cake”). In the band’s extended hit-or-miss period, that fumbling quality could be maddening, but over its past three records, Weezer seems to have been working those struggles with expectation into the music. At its sometime best, The Black Album sounds like a California rock band trying to figure out what exactly living in California and playing in a rock band actually entails. It will still inspire think-piece after think-piece about where Weezer went wrong, and whether its former glory is lost forever. But with the band remaining prolific and energized, is it that interesting to spend so much time thinking about a 25-year-old masterpiece? Maybe it’s more important that Weezer’s idiosyncrasies feel honest again.