Oh the politics of being Weezer. This band attracts so much attention for so many different reasons, and in preparation for the release of their new album “Hurley”, things hit a fever pitch. First it was word that the band was heading back to the indies after all those years in the majors. They ended their partnership with Geffen and hooked up with the small punk label Epitaph. Many took it as a sign the band was eager to return to their roots and take off much of the polish that so dominated their last few records. Then there was the controversy over the title “Hurley”, and how with the cover photo it appeared to be a tribute to Jorge Garcia’s character from the TV show “Lost”. Well, more recently guitarist Brian Bell revealed that the band struck some sort of deal with the clothing company Hurley, and that’s the real reason for the title being what it is. He later retracted that statement, but of course there is now a collection of Weezer-related clothing items for sale from Hurley. Then you get into the conflict that has plagued Weezer fans for several years now, that the band has given up on the magical early days of “The Blue Album” and “Pinkerton”, descending into a world of crap music ever since. Still, with each new Weezer album, those same fans that love to bitch hold out hope for a return to form only to be disappointed time after time. I’ll readily admit to being guilty of this, which is why last year in my review of “Raditude” I settled on the idea that the band had resigned any attempts at making creatively stimulating music anymore and were simply looking to have fun. If that meant ill-advised collaborations with Lil Wayne, then so be it. The plan was to stop judging them based on their past, but rather on the merits of every other soulless, alternative rock-ish band making mainstream music today.

For those hoping that signing to Epitaph would take Weezer away from the overly polished pop nonsense they’ve been putting out recently, “Hurley” actually makes a little progress in the right direction. The first sign the band is feeling nostalgic comes from opening track and first single “Memories”, where they recount some of those crazy times as a band on the rise during the mid-90s. They were so young and stupid back then. And the song’s not half bad either. That display of strength continues through the next track “Ruling Me”, which seems nearly destined to be the next single with its surging chorus and sugary sweet backing harmonies. On “Unspoken”, much of the track is sustained with simply Rivers and an acoustic guitar. It may lack the scratchiness of the couple home demo records he released, but there’s a certain charm to the song as it slowly builds, adding flute then some rhythmic shakers then orchestration before going full-on with the blasting electric guitars in the final minute. Similarly, the very beginning of “Run Away” features a lone piano and Rivers singing into what sounds like a shoddy microphone set up in a bedroom. Unlike “Unspoken” though, the full band enters 30 seconds into “Run Away” and it turns into something closer to an average mid-tempo rocker for Weezer, though with some xylophone hits and a few other odd elements it takes a somewhat unique approach. Keeping a similar tempo, “Hang On” is a love song that’s tender enough to move some hearts while containing a chorus that’s catchy and earnest. Weezer saves the biggest surprise for the end though, when “Time Flies” turns everything that came before it on its head. The audio fidelity completely drops out and you get what ostensibly sounds like a demo recorded without any professional studio equipment. The acoustic guitar, bass drum and piano all fight for space in the mix amid Rivers’ singing and backing harmonies. Everything sounds completely unclean and that’s a huge part of its charm. Add in a pretty addictive hook and it’s probably the best non-Weezer-like song that Weezer has ever put together. Perhaps credit goes to the legendary Mac Davis, who produced and helped write the track (but none of the others).

As wonderfully fun and surprisingly old school “Hurley” can get, there’s still a handful of problems to deal with as things progress. The song “Trainwrecks” is just that, seeming to be a pointed attack at hipsters or slackers or somebody. The issue isn’t so much what’s being said but more like how it’s being said. The verses get so bogged down in attempts at clever wordplay or simply complaining that the chorus gets buried and can’t really dig itself out. “Where’s My Sex?” is the one Weezer song on the album that’s remarkably plainful to listen to. The whole thing is a play on words, as Rivers’ daughter reportedly once pronounced the word “socks” as “sex” one day and it inspired the song-long joke that’s not funny after the first minute. That’s the one, like “Love Is The Answer” from “Raditude” or “We Are All On Drugs” from “Make Believe” that you don’t want to go near with a ten foot pole. And while “Smart Girls” is fun and bouncy like Weezer often do, the biggest mistake it makes is playing out like a crazy mad libs experiment. Before winding up on the official tracklisting for the album, the song was called “Hot Girls”, and if you replace “smart” with “hot” (or “dumb” or “crazy” or etc.) then the effect remains exactly the same. Lazy writing is to blame for that one, and Rivers collaborated with No Doubt’s Tony Kanal in writing it. Suddenly it makes more sense as to why it kind of sucks.

The biggest positive about “Hurley” is that Rivers wrote more of the songs on it than he has on the last couple Weezer records. Sure he’s been collaborating with other people for awhile now, but more of the words on this new album have that old Weezer flavor to them. And that helps to push “Hurley” far above the band’s last few records, towards a territory that’s reserved for those long time fanboys and fangirls holding out hope for another masterstroke akin to those first two efforts. The harsh reality is that we’ve been forced to accept so much crap from this band that when they rise even a little above average, it’s freak out time. Just because this is the best Weezer album in the past 8 or 9 years doesn’t mean it’s automatically amazing. Still, the band does much more right than wrong here, and though they continue to fall into their same old traps of recent times now and then, Weezer seems more humbled and smarter than they have in quite awhile. The explanation as to why will continue to remain a mystery, as nobody can definitively say that changing record labels or possibly partnering with a clothing company is the magic solution to getting back your mojo. Weezer’s not all the way where they need to be just yet, but after the sharp downward spiral they’ve been on these last several years, the biggest surprise is that they’re now starting to climb back up from that dark valley. It’s gonna be a long and arduous journey to the top again should they try for it, but at the very least it could be a fun one. Turn your brain off for awhile, crank up some “Hurley”, and do what you can to enjoy it. In terms of mainstream alternative rock today, you could do a whole lot worse.

Weezer – Memories

Buy “Hurley” from Amazon