“Thought I Knew” is one of three songs off 2008’s Red Album to feature someone other than Rivers Cuomo on lead vocals. Those unfamiliar with the band’s history won’t appreciate just how surprising it was to hear that bit of news in the months before the album’s release. It hadn’t been since 1994’s Blue Album that anyone other than Cuomo received a writing credit (drummer Pat Wilson, co-writer of “Surf Wax America” and “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” and “My Name Is Jonas” – the last of which also featuring contributions from former guitarist Jason Cropper), and even then, Cuomo sang those songs. The band had experimented with having other members write and sing in the sessions for Make Believe, but none of those songs were considered for the final tracklist.
It had been a long time coming for guitarist Brian Bell, who submitted his first four songs to the band way back in 1998 — including two that eventually translated to his then-sideproject the Space Twins, “Butterfly Collector” and “Seventeen.” However, even though the whole band enjoyed playing these songs at rehearsal, Cuomo vetoed their consideration when it came time to submit a demo of new material to Geffen Records. The band did record several versions of Bell’s “Yellow Camaro” during the Early Album 5 demos of 2002, and even played it live during contemporaneous tours, but that was as far as he could get.
This song began as “I Thought I Knew,” a pretty, minor-key kiss-off aimed at a girl who had left him hanging, which Bell originally demoed for his current sideproject, The Relationship. Between acoustic strums and piano, Bell in this version mutters a series of half-hearted apologies that demonstrate the influence of Cuomo’s penchant for cliche: “Sorry if I caused you pain / Sorry I forgot your name / Sorry, but you left me out in the rain.” The second verse boasts some nice choral backing; the bridge develops with an able craftsman’s sense of pacing; and the synthesizer lays a blueprint for what could be a fine string arrangement throughout. It’s melodramatic, by-the-books stuff, but even as a blown-out, poorly transcoded home demo, it’s appreciably superior to much of what made the cut for the three preceding Weezer records. When fans discovered a new version would be on Red, many rejoiced.
Granted, the major-key Weezer version wound up showcasing their latter-day knack for futzing up a good thing. There’s an awful synth-drum intro (which, the liner notes point out, Wilson came up with “in a few minutes” — no surprise), cheap canned handclaps, and a sonic palette that sounds like something by Hootie & The Blowfish or Sugar Ray. On the plus side, Wilson — who usually drums — provides some crucial variation with his meandering guitar leads, to the particular benefit of the chorus. Cuomo went as far as to claim Wilson’s playing here makes for the best guitar on the album (and, by way of Cuomo’s stubborn refusal to offer any leads himself, he might be right). But generally speaking, the song fails to realize the original demo’s potential, which Bell had carefully mapped out: though one might wish to refrain from discouraging experimentation in Weezer (a more and more oppressively conservative group, as years go on), a professional rerecording of Bell’s version would’ve been a great improvement upon what they released instead.
Bell seems to agree: in a recent interview, he states that while he “really does like Weezer’s version,” he doesn’t think it was done to the best of the song’s potential. (He even attempted to pull it at the last minute, pushing with all his might to replace it with Cuomo’s vastly superior “Miss Sweeney” – easily one of the very few new century songs to match if not surpass the standard the band set in the ’90s – but remarkably enough he was denied by his master.) However, as Bell relates himself, “I was talked out of taking it off and [told] that it was important to have it on the record.”(Cuomo insisted his three sidemen each get their turn at center stage on the album, out of the presumptuous and selfish desire to condition fans to expect the same thing to happen at live shows. Cuomo, as he approached his 40s, sought more opportunities to rest his voice during Weezer’s incorrigibly short 80-minute sets.) Bell’s biggest qualm, like mine, was that the beginning of the song sounded, to his ears, “like a Mountain Dew commercial” — a hilariously incisive assessment. Either way, it quickly became clear that Cuomo’s authoritarian tendencies hadn’t subsided like he wanted it to seem.
For the band’s recent MTV Session, they turned in a sharply-dressed version of “Thought I Knew” before a live studio audience of…square dancers. In any case, it’s a beautiful performance — gone are the tacky intro and handclaps, the soft drink synth-drum, and all of the studio version’s other regrets. Bell does a great job fronting the band, Scott Shriner’s backup harmony is just what it should be, Wilson’s lithe guitar work is like that of a seasoned session player, and Cuomo’s cocktail kit backbeat is pleasantly understated. A studio recording of this arrangement would have likely been the best possible outcome.