Weezer – ‘OK HUMAN’
Surprise! Weezer have a new album out. In recent years, they have been nothing if not prolific – at this point there always seems to be a new Weezer album coming out, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Although their career was built on writing perfect three-minute pop-punk songs that combined crunchy guitars and weirdly introspective lyrics, over time they have experimented and the results have been mixed to say the least. This new album has a pun-based title lampooning Radiohead’s ‘Ok Computer’ although maybe ‘No Surprises’ would’ve been a more appropriate name for another Weezer release. However, this is not ‘Van Weezer’ the metal-tinted punk record we were expecting. Not even close.
Even by the band’s unusual standards ‘Ok Human’ is personal and strange. After the nose-dive in quality around the time of their self-titled red album, they have been churning out albums, each with a different approach. Here, they have returned to writing three-minute pop songs only this time without guitars. Each track is gentle and piano based, but padded out with lashings of strings and horns. It’s a bold choice, quite unlike anything in their catalogue, while still sounding very Weezer. However, while the arrangements are big and grand, and despite being provided by a socially-distanced orchestra at Abbey Road studios, they feel surprisingly intimate. Compare it to the band’s previous record, the self-titled black album, and this is far more satisfying. The elevator-style music is gone and the awkward-as-hell lyrics have also been scaled back. This is brighter and more confident, propelled by Weezer’s undeniable charms.
Written sometime in 2019, the album was originally shelved in favour of an arena-rock sound, but with all stadium touring plans postponed due to the pandemic, release dates have been shuffled and ‘Ok Human’ has found its moment to shine. It is no secret that band leader Rivers Cuomo often culls his lyrics from stream of conscious diaries and his deeply introspective personality flows through the band’s work. On other albums, this sometimes led to goofy or even cringeworthy lyricism to the point of being nigh-on unlistenable (see ‘Raditude’), yet here it’s what makes the album work. It is literally about being isolated and life feeling weird, presented as a series of catchy tunes. After all this time, he has somehow managed to stumble back into the zeitgeist.
A piano might sit at the heart of every song, but each has its own distinct construction, be that the epic flow of ‘Numbers’, the bouncing ‘Aloo Gobi’ or the shuffling sound of ‘Grapes of Wrath’. For the most part, Cuomo relies heavily on his gift for writing earworms and that’s no bad thing. Lead single ‘All My Favourite Songs’ is big and catchy but you’ll find yourself humming most of the album’s melodies. It is also notable how well Pat Wilson’s simple drum patterns shape the overall feel. It is a bright, snappy sound that bites through the orchestral flow so even the sadder cuts like ‘Bird With a Broken Wing’ and ‘Dead Roses’ have a lofty bounce.
As for the Radiohead comparison, you can’t really hear it in the music, but it is present in the theme of alienation and underlying tone. The album’s concept mirrors ‘Ok Computer’ in that it is broadly about technophobia and the state of the modern world. It’s most explicit on ‘Grapes of Wrath’ which sounds like Cuomo name-checking his favourite online services but is actually saying something about their place in his life rather than just being a twee reference (something he has been very guilty of in the past). It’s also present on ‘Screens’, an ode to spending too much time staring at the computer, and ‘Play My Piano’ on which we learn what he does between Zoom meetings. It is all delightfully odd and a result of his modern lifestyle. However filtering these ideas through the overarching concept really works in the album’s favour, for example ‘Aloo Gobi’ with its refrain of ‘You are not alone’ manages to convey a sense of hope alongside its day-in-the-life drudgery.
You have to praise Weezer’s inventiveness. Fourteen albums down the line, it’s nice to see them approaching their music from a new angle, especially as the results feel so consistent. While ‘Ok Human’ won’t satisfy your guitar-rock cravings, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable ride. Though not one of their best albums, by allowing melody to take precedence over quirkiness, they have avoided their worst impulses, so neither is it one of their weakest. ‘Ok Human’ is a fun diversion that captures the essence of pandemic living with a spring in its step.