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.