‘Van Weezer’: Rivers Cuomo Wears His Heavy Metal Influences on His Sleeve, but Nowhere Deeper

In 2018, Weezer released a cover of Toto’s “Africa” that was so well-received commercially that the band went on to record a full album of them, including everything from Black Sabbath to Michael Jackson. Strictly speaking, “Van Weezer,” their latest — and second release of 2021 — isn’t comprised of formal renditions of Van Halen songs, or anyone else’s but their own; rather, it’s a tribute to that band and a number of others featuring newly performed riffs merged with original songwriting. Compared by the band and early media reports to the group’s hard-edged 2002 album “Maladroit” (itself an homage to Kiss and other bands), the record synthesizes Rivers Cuomo and his current bandmates’ influences into some sort of conceptual musical turducken, using classic guitar melodies to explore contemporary subject matter with the same emotional maturity that Cuomo possessed in 1994 when the first Weezer album debuted. 

In other words, an album for 25-year-olds recorded by a 50-year-old writing about 16-year-olds who are obsessed with bands that are 40 years old, “Van Weezer” crackles with a different and slightly more intriguing energy than its chamber-pop predecessor “OK Human” — but it’s tough to know whether that’s because of the group’s creative synchronicity in exploring this concept or just the iconic riffs that they stole for its building blocks.

The record is dedicated to the late Eddie Van Halen, whose influence is conspicuous from the first track, “The End Of The Game.” The track feels more like a mash-up than an original composition, which verses played over what sounds like parts of their 2001 song “Hash Pipe” framed with an intro and chorus stolen directly from Van Halen’s “Panama.” Their shamelessness thievery extends to their own work as Cuomo sings “I’m on an island with no sun,” romancing a girl named Suzy who shares his affection for rock guitar: “I know that you would crank this song / Air-guitaring with your headphones on.” What’s surprising about this and the songs that follow it is how for spotlighting influences that draw from the heyday of heavy metal, they carry the emotional weight of songs from the heyday of pop punk, outlining the superficial connections between boy and girl that create a lot of earnest pining but little long-term substance. The juxtaposition of bodacious-babe, cocaine riffs and navelgazing romance creates a weird tone that the band never fully sells to the listener.

“All The Good Ones,” for example, settles down into a groove more like Weezer’s debut “Blue Album,” with a beat like Queen’s “We Will Rock You” but scaled back from stadium sized to suit a modest club as Cuomo bemoans “all of the good ones are gone,” and reflecting on how badly he wishes he could win the attention of a hot female guitarist. Next, “Hero” taps into familiar rock & roll subject matter — kids with big dreams who grow up to realize they’re too weird to fit in — and one supposes that as a result of that timeliness, there will always be a need for a new anthem for the alienated, restless and alone; but even so, Blink-182 and Sum 41 mined this territory and sounded more or less the same fifteen years ago, and it’s fair to point out that interest in that sound is less popular than ever. 

“I Need Some Of That” openly cribs Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” in its intro, and Cuomo offers a laundry list of influences, including (literally) Aerosmith and (harmonically) The Cars, while dreaming about a music career from behind the handlebars of a 10-speed bicycle: “even if we blow up/ we’re never gonna grow up.” Cuomo’s voice hasn’t significantly deepened during his almost 30-year career, but it’s difficult not to feel like he’s pandering when he sings songs like this, most of all because they just do not sound like modern songs about and by teenagers, they sound like a middle-aged guy waxing nostalgic about feelings he had a long time ago. “Beginning Of The End” expands his repertoire of influence to include Billy Joel, whose “The Longest Time” he quotes, as well as Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, an artist with whom it feels like Cuomo shares a few things in common, like the skill to repurpose the work of his heroes with an affectionate wink.

“Blue Dream” offers a note for note “Crazy Train” riff, but the track lacks the original’s cavernous drums and its paranoid menace, especially once Cuomo starts singing about a girl who broke his heart. Though it might not be the foundational influence for the song, “1 More Hit” chugs with an energy reminiscent of Alice in Chains’ “Man In The Box,” adding tempo changes and jagged improvisations to create something that’s fun and nostalgic, although it eventually arrives at an inappropriately sunny place for a song about addiction. “Sheila Can Do It” provides the band’s Rick Springfield tribute by way of some “Pinkerton”-era melodies and some lyrics that flirt with meaning but never quite land (“If I feel my heart is getting watered down / then I’ll stop and I’ll turn and I’ll say / if Sheila can do it, than I can do it / I don’t see the problem with that”).

“She Needs Me,” again, is the kind of song, and sentiment, of a young man who doesn’t understand what true connection is, as Cuomo delivers a song about the sense of purpose its protagonist gets from solving his partner’s minor problems (“sometimes she hands me a jar of Jif / and I feel good when I open it”). The unexpected frame of reference it evokes is the Lil Dicky song “White Crimes,” where the rapper talks about stealing wifi and sneaking candy into movie theaters; unfortunately, Cuomo doesn’t have the same self-awareness as his rapping counterpart, so the notion that “she needs me/ so that’s why I need her” plays more as oblivious and immature than sweet. Finally, the album ends on “Precious Metal Girl,” a track that — from its title — perfectly encapsulates Cuomo’s skill as a songwriter, capable of pirouetting on catchy, and clever lyrics, but never connecting them to anything deeper. Ultimately, Weezer is a band whose music is made for the demographic of its members — 50 year olds who still think they are, and think like, 25 year olds; in which case, “Van Weezer” feels destined to satisfy that rarified group, but if you really love heavy metal, either seek out people who are doing it today sincerely, or go back to the original source. This copy of a copy fades before you’ve even finished listening to it.

Van Weezer” releases May 7 on Apple Music.