‘OK Human’: Weezer Replaces Guitars With String Arrangements

If the last time you listened to Weezer was during the release of the band’s 2001 “Green Album,” then “OK Human” suggests a very smooth and consistent evolution between their third full-length release and their fourteenth, released Friday. That isn’t true, of course; the band’s growth has been a bumpy road of trend-chasing and digressive experimentation, leading to seeming non-sequitur accomplishments like releasing a fan-requested cover of Africa’s “Toto” in 2018, which reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. But “OK Human” feels like an appropriate next step for the Weezer of two decades ago, merging muscular string arrangements, effervescent pop melodies and wry lyrics from longtime frontman Rivers Cuomo into a polished chamber-pop concoction that trades on the borrowed studio genius of standard bearers like Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson while evoking the wunderkind bedroom songwriters of his heyday, from Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett to Plush’s Liam Hayes. 

Unfortunately, the 20-year span hasn’t deepened Cuomo’s insights or widened his worldview, and after almost a full year in quarantine, his navel-gazing feels more narcissistic and superficial than on “The Green Album,” much less Weezer’s terrific first two albums. “All My Favorite Songs,” the first song and single, captures a contrarian mindset that fans will certainly relate to as he sings, “I like spacing out when somebody talks / I wanna be rich but I feel guilty / I fall in love with everyone who hates me;” but Cuomo’s self-examination immediately feels practiced, like a Tweeted humblebrag that makes sure to mention the many other people deserving of whatever prize or opportunity the author has just received. Does that make it a great pop song? Maybe — popular music’s purpose is to unite listeners in their identification, and this will definitely do that. But there doesn’t seem to be much of the hard, honest work being done here to plumb real bad choices and personal shortcomings like he did, naked and unflattering, on “Pinkerton.”

Chugging along on a string arrangement and a backbeat as funky as Weezer will likely ever be, “Aloo Gobi” plays like the band’s version of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” from its meandering narrative (“O o o my god / What’s happening to me? / Walking down Montana /

Same old dull routines”) to its halfhearted pivot into more earnest sentiment (“You are not alone / Someone else will be there with you”). That last part of the lyrics comes after an orchestral flourish Jon Brion would have beautifully and effortlessly assembled on a turn-of-the-millennium era Fiona Apple song, so it almost works; but then again, it also comes after Cuomo rhymes “French noir flick” and “I’m agoraphobic” so ham-fistedly that the songwriters guild should place him on probation. They then make the inexplicable choice to place “Grapes of Wrath” afterward, a song that begins with the same string arrangement as “Aloo Gobi,” creating a transition that quite literally sounds like an awkward hiccup when it feels like there was a real opportunity to either mix the tracks together or find one of a dozen other solutions to make the record flow from one to the more smoothly.

What the listener quickly begins to realize is that Cuomo’s songwriting is deeply personal — but unfortunately more like a transcript of his to-do list or iPhone notes than, say, a true confession or diary. On “Grapes of Wrath,” he discusses listening to audiobooks (“I’m gonna rock my Audible / Headphone ‘Grapes of Wrath’ / Drift off to oblivion / I just don’t care”) as he shuffles through a collection of high school-level literary references (Moby Dick, 1984, The Lord of the Rings); on “Play My Piano,” he describes quarantine life (“My wife is upstairs / My kids are upstairs / And I haven’t washed my hair in 3 weeks / I should get back to / These Zoom interviews”). You may not be surprised to learn that “Screens” is a two-minute exercise in hang wringing about our addiction to technology (“Can you tell me where we’re going? / Where will we be 21 years from now? / Everyone stares at their screens”). Of course, this is also the band that once claimed that their 2010 “Hurley” album was named after the eponymous clothing label, a “mistake” they parlayed into a branded clothing line; as you listen to the record you’re wondering if the references are the byproduct of mundane observations, or they’re product placement for some kind of branding synergy yet to be unveiled.

“Numbers” similarly risks adding a musical comment to the cultural discourse that was already articulated (“There’s always a number that’ll make you feel bad about yourself / You try to measure up, try to measure up to somebody else”), but in an era of confectionary platitudes, someone will always need to hear a variation of “don’t compare your progress, or your journey, to anyone else’s.” But you get the sense that even Cuomo gets bored with these concepts the further he gets into the song, first offering the reassurance of “So call on me and tell me what you need,” and finally trying to offer a technological coda that (pun intended) adds up to treacly gibberish: “But the numbers won’t compute / When we love / And a two becomes one.” Meanwhile, at just over a minute, “Mirror Image” delivers one of the record’s most powerful musical moments because it focuses on one idea and winds down as soon as it’s been expressed; if recording string arrangements in iconic Abbey Road studios made any impression on the band, it appears to be the wisdom to not overextend lyrically when the music is already doing the emotional work for you, and the track becomes their version of the Beach Boys “You Still Believe In Me.”

Meanwhile, songs like “Bird With A Broken Wing” are fun little excursions into musical fiction, as Cuomo adopts the point of view of a seagull or albatross (“Long ago / I was flying in the air / Looking at the sea below / I was hunting krill”). But is the song meant to be literal or metaphorical? Cuomo is unfortunately not skilled enough to seamlessly combine the two, so when he starts singing about “the stupid cat,” you’re wondering what it’s really about. “Dead Roses” is probably the best, most fully-formed song on the album, a Dungeons & Dragons player’s medieval romantic fantasy supported by dancing woodwinds and Cuomo’s urgent vocals. But then he again retreats into arm’s length sentiment on “Here Comes The Rain,” referencing a salt manufacturer (“My umbrella makes me look just like the Morton girl”) and quoting Bobby Darin (“Splish, splish, splash / Woah oh oh-oh, taking a bath”) before hitting you with a feel-good, sitcom chorus, “Here comes the rain / Oh it’s gonna wash all my troubles away.” 

And so, “OK Human” mostly speaks for itself, starting with its title, an inexplicable reference to Radiohead’s 1997 technophobic treatise “OK Computer” that offers lesser insights than its storied predecessor did back then when so much of what they worried about was still on the horizon. It isn’t that the band, or Cuomo specifically, is bad; if you like Weezer, the melodies here will evoke the same warm, deceptively sunny feeling you had when listening to “Island In The Sun” or “Buddy Holly.” But they sound like better written versions of Buddy’s improvised song to Jovie in Elf: “I’m in a store, and I’m singing!” There’s nothing at all to these songs; they’re distressingly literal precisely when they think they’re getting underneath pop music’s glossy surface. Ultimately, “OK Human” is as good a time to pick up where you may have left off with Weezer, but the direction the band is heading suggests that waiting another 20 years to check in won’t be worth it. 

OK Human” releases Jan. 29 on Apple Music.