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Photograph

Following the failure of Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo spent half a decade smothering one of the brightest pop songwriting muses of our time. After some early indicators, the first real product of this process was 2001’s Green Album, a 28-minute-thin slice of early Beatles songcraft sieved through the compression filter of safe, formulaic late ’90s radio rock.

“Photograph” is the most instructive example of what effect this devil’s bargain had on Cuomo’s creative voice: while most other Green songs feature more ambiguous traces of his original sensibilities, “Photograph” sounds like what 1994’s “Buddy Holly” might’ve sounded like were it written by 2001 Cuomo. The ’50s pop “ooh-ee-ooh” that is “Holly’s” surest hook is reprised to play the same role here, and in both cases the song is its respective record’s most poptimistic, handclapping, major-key statement of (commercial) purpose. To wit, they are each Weezer‘s concisest song: “Buddy Holly” is the only tune on Blue (well) below the three-minute mark, while “Photograph” is just 1:55 when discounting its non-musical intro and outro. Given their many similarities, and the analytical pop success mania that informed all of Green‘s artistic decisions, it’d take little stretch of the imagination to hazard that “Photograph” was Cuomo’s conscious attempt to rewrite his most popular song to date.

Of course, the comparison might tempt one to consider all the ways a younger Cuomo could have improved “Photograph.” As “Holly” illustrates, he probably would have made more interesting instrumentation choices (as with the good-humored synthesizers for which “Photograph’s” introductory guitar noodles make some kind of undersold substitute), and though Green‘s standard issue verse-melody-as-guitar-break formula works relatively well in this context, it would be silly to suggest ’90s Cuomo wouldn’t have left a more suitable solo in its place. Even a later (sloppy) live version, released on the flipside of a couple different iterations of the “Keep Fishin'” single, manages to outline some simple backing vocal parts that could’ve filled things out nicely.

But “Photograph” demonstrates Green‘s distinct achievements just as well. It manages to pack almost as much pop thrill into a song nearly a minute shorter than Blue‘s shortest; introduces a third-person, broadly inspirational lyric to Cuomo’s lexicon (including quirky, memorable lines like, “If you need it / You should show it / ‘Cause you might play so monastic that you blow it,” and, “If you blew it / Don’t reject it / Just keep drawing up the plans and re-erect it”);  the performance, especially for one of an era ridiculed for its impersonality, boils over with audible joy, even goodwill; and despite the equally valid criticism of the song’s repetitiveness, its circular, symmetrical structure has an almost hypnotic effect – especially when taken with the rest of the album, which sustains the same spell – that places “Photograph,” and Green as a whole, among Weezer’s most compulsively replayable material.

Interestingly, an early leak of the Green Album had the song listed as ” If You Want It,” and ran almost a full minute longer. The extra time is wasted, with repeated sections and a variation on the chorus that only serves to muddle the message of the song (“Photograph” succeeds in blending a love song vibe with more generally aspirational themes, whereas the added chorus lyrics of “If You Want It” – about commitment to a relationship – make it a more polarized split). In the apparently last-minute decision to trim the fat, we get no small insight into Cuomo’s artistic considerations of the time, which underscore how the focus and concision of Blue and Pinkerton hadn’t left him so much as they were being redirected towards vastly different goals.

4 Comments

  1. Shaq wrote:

    This is incredibly accurate. Top-notch stuff, keep it up.

    Sunday, December 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Adroit wrote:

    I’ll second what Shaq said.

    It’s strange how the use of a single word (‘monastic’) can lift an already brilliant song, but it does.

    How sweet would it be to hear a version of ‘Photograph’ recorded in the style of early Beatles, Kinks, Lovin’ Spoonful etc, or even a classic 60’s girl group or Motown arrangement….

    Monday, December 7, 2015 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  3. MyNameIsJason wrote:

    I’ve never really dreamed up what Green could have been with more arranging. If you divorce these songs themselves from the chug chug chug production, though, I do think you could have something at least moderately better. Really interesting point. There’s a moment in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (the doc made about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) where Jay Bennet makes some joke about the band agonizing over arrangement so much because if you don’t “everything just sounds like a folk song.” If Green was as diverse as YHF it would definitely be more interesting.

    Has Weezer ever been good at making albums with a wide range of sound, though? Even Pink is pretty consistent until Butterfly. I’m talking guitar tone, dynamic, bpm. This isn’t a band who messes with their medium much.

    I should also mention that the number one issue I have with Green is lyrical quality. Even if Ocasek and Rivers had found a way to make things like Photograph more dynamic, I think it still would come in way behind Pink and Blue.

    Saturday, December 12, 2015 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  4. MyNameIsJason wrote:

    That being said, Photograph is a fun tune and one of Green’s shining moments. It’s one of the best of Weezer’s “lower your expectations” canon.

    Saturday, December 12, 2015 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

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