Weezer Covers Michael Jackson, Eurythmics, Tears for Fears on Surprise Album

In 2017, a teenage fan assiduously tweeted for six months about her dream to one day hear L.A. power pop mainstay Weezer cover Toto’s seminal 1982 hit “Africa.” One has to gush, imagining the thrill she got when the band actually delivered. The song turned out the group’s fourth biggest hit to date. For perspective, consider that their 1994 single, “Buddy Holly,” is only ninth in the Billboard rankings. Weezer has always covered disparate artists, from The Monkees and The Cars to Lady Gaga and Toni Braxton. The success of “Africa” inspired them to record their fifth self-titled album, this one a collection of greatest hits — by other artists. Released by surprise, and referred to as the “Teal Album,” it’s a fun, frivolous project that finds Weezer applying their signature strain of tongue-in-cheek tune-smithing to acclaimed numbers from various eras.

Naturally, the album begins with “Africa.” As if to compensate for the crisp, contemporary production, the snares are treated with eighties reverb. A shuffle builds momentum, adding extra punch. Singer Rivers Cuomo’s gossamer voice tone has an adolescent quality, to which we can credit much of the Weezer’s sustained resonance with youth. Come the chorus, distorted guitars erupt, and it’s all amped up, magnified, up front and immediate. Save for key vocal harmonies unsatisfyingly low in the mix, Cuomo and crew manage to both retain the song’s aesthetic and brand it their own. Next, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems written specifically for Weezer, with the vocal melodies, song structure, and guitar solo minutiae comprising an exposé of influence, the chorus has been retrofitted for nearly a decade later, and the remake loses no time in crossing the Atlantic, with Cuomo’s direct, unassuming delivery miles from his precursor’s coy obliqueness.

Weezer step outside their alt-rock comfort zone, tackling Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Cuomo’s first utterance will drop jaws because one could easily mistake him for Annie Lennox. Come the second verse, he has seamlessly shifted into his natural register. There’s a vulnerability in his voice that supplants Lennox’s bodacious posturing, but retains its spectre. His dutiful recreation of the outrageously eighties, atmospheric backing vocals is a comically gleeful indulgence. Next comes is A-ha’s era-defining “Take On Me,” another instance of musical lineages emerging clear as day this time, Cuomo’s singing. It’s not how much Cuomo sounds like A-ha’s Morten Harket, but how much Harket sounds like Cuomo. To clarify, Cuomo never sounds as if emulating Harket — he simply sounds like himself. On the other hand, Weezer fans who go back to source material will be struck by how much Harket’s unique inflections intimate Cuomo’s idiosyncrasies. Otherwise most impressive is how Cuomo nails the chorus’ climactic, glass-shattering falsetto.

Having surveyed the eighties with command, Weezer look to conjure the spirit of ‘67, tackling The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Sadly, their omission of the iconic opening riff is a portent, and results turn out underwhelming. With his impressive vocal range, Cuomo begins evoking the original inflections, replete with gasps and winces, but without the poise. Upon the titular line, he plummets in an appallingly amateur display. The backing vocals too seem half-hearted and less ethereal. The band does a decent job making the song their own, but ultimately sounds cheap. The drumming adeptly follows novel avenues, but without the integral dragging stomp, it’s all tenuous and unsavory. Predictably, the chorus trades in horns for heavy guitars, but it’s an ill fit, reducing exuberance to tepidity.

Fortunately, Weezer stray from their standard palette, and promptly rebound with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” Cuomo sounds possessed; his mind-blowing emulation of Ozzy Osbourne suggests perhaps there was some truth to all the black magic theatrics. The cover sounds like an ambitious remaster of the original, although a brief, new guitar segment, overlain midway, scrawls Weezer’s signature with John Hancock presumptuousness. Having seized the seventies, the band make a run at Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Cuomo wisely opts not to mimic the Gibb Brothers-indebted inflections. Oddly, his voice, fit to the song’s baroque stylings, transforms Weezer instantly into avant indie pop sensation Of Montreal. The streamlined update adheres largely to its template, but trims edges, adds garnish, and arguably succeeds in all the ways that “Happy Together” fails. Dense vocal harmonies are stripped of their cartoonish extremes, rendered less theatrical, and more compact. The guitar jabs that punctuate the chorus are amplified, and the percussion is purposefully redesigned.

TLC’s 1999 hit “No Scrubs” is the most surprising undertaking yet — or is it? Cuomo sang, “What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl?” on the decidedly unurban “Buddy Holly” in his standard vocal persona, with full hipster irony. This is no different, only magnified by his adherence to the original female gender perspective. The general consensus is that artists who modify pronouns in a cover betray both the writer’s intended voice, and their own insecurity — although one might expect the present-day obsession with gender fluidity to sanction an inversion of pronouns. Cuomo recreates the original central guitar figure and melismatic ad libs, but neither the slick beats nor the singers’ quirks. Funnily enough, he ends up with a fairly typical Weezer song.  

On “Billie Jean,” Cuomo reproduces Michael Jackson’s whimsical vocal layers, replete with the “Hee” and “Hoo,” flourishes. He pulls it off swimmingly at moments, but overall, sounds unsettlingly awkward. And, unlike on classic Weezer songs that own awkwardness in longstanding indie tradition, his floundering here seems unintentional. This puzzling inclusion seems an ambitious, but misguided tribute, undertaken primarily for personal satisfaction. On closer “Stand By Me” Cuomo’s rigid phrasing lacks Ben E. King’s free-flowing soulfulness. However, the band ventures beyond hero worship, and reimagines the song. The laid-back guitar strumming that erupts into anthemic stop-start rock riffage in the chorus recalls fan-favorite “Say It Ain’t So.” The song achieves its effect from its designedly-coarse, distilled punk texture and sleek, pop linearity.

The “Teal Album” comes across as a lighthearted, largely enjoyable venture. Weezer’s core fanbase will delight in hearing four decades of hits, left to the whims of an outfit that embodies a salient ethos. Some songs shed light on lineage, and offer an intimate look into the development of the band’s singular sound. Cuomo showcases exceptional versatility and, save for a couple egregious pitfalls, manages to conjure motley influences within his usual parameters. There are no dramatic reimaginings, just a selection of generally faithful renditions, tweaked and turned around to bear the Weezer trademark.

Teal Album” is available Jan. 24 on Apple Music.