Where to begin?
“Only In Dreams” isn’t one of the best Weezer songs so much as it is one of the best songs. It contains what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest passages of guitar work in the history of music. It is, in many ways, the perfect synthesis of the young Rivers Cuomo’s myriad influences. It is by far the longest entry in the Weezer discography, and not a second of it is wasted time. It is 8 minutes of calculated, unbridled perfection.
Indeed, perfectly symmetrical (and symmetrically perfect), the song begins as it ends: that bassline. Somehow, merely listening to that lone instrument and that simple melody for the first time — whether you’ve taken a look at the track length or not — you know you are in for something epic, something truly special. It’s a bit hard to make sense of, since if The Blue Album never happened and I wrote that bassline tomorrow, it wouldn’t be anything more than a pretty cool little riff. Somehow, in this context, even before Pat Wilson’s simple cymbal count-off, it is imbued with a certain majesty and promise that simply can’t be explained. It is beauty incarnate.
Things only get better from there. After one repetition, Wilson enters as mentioned above, followed by a plaintive, aching little progression on the acoustic guitar (a distinctly Blue tradition; looking at the list of songs that use the technique — “My Name Is Jonas,” “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” “In The Garage,” “Paperface,” “Mykel & Carli,” — one wonders why Weezer hasn’t properly used the acoustic in the context of a predominantly electric song ever since). In a moment of masterful subtlety, four little harmonic notes played through an amplifier seem to symbolize a small epiphany, like the narrator snapping to consciousness and beginning to gather his thoughts. True, in a way, the song’s piecemeal construction — one element appearing after the other, from bass to cymbal to guitar to snare, like a picture slowly coming into focus — neatly evokes the transient sensation of a dream, or perhaps one’s gradual recollection of one the following morning. Something about the very motion of that hypnotic bass, the way it undulates up and down, mimics the motion of the mind at rest, gently drifting between REM and the depths of slow-wave sleep.
Another element enters our dreamscape: the electric melody that follows that four-note epiphany lilts and sways with a morose limp, somehow resigned and hopeful at the same time. It sounds pensive and alone, but heartfelt and sincere in spite of the sad odds it’s against — like the too-nice wallflower serving time along the periphery of his classmates’ fondly crystallizing memories.
Of course, the narration enters, full of the pained longing that the cinematic introduction served to foreshadow: “You can’t resist her / She’s in your bones.” In a lovely moment of Wilsonian harmony, Matt Sharp chimes in with that indelible falsetto — “She is your marrow, and your ride home” — thus deepening the high school subtext of the song before it even arises explicitly. A brief pause ensues, the guitar harmonics reappear, and our sad protagonist clears his mind once more.
The vocals truly are astounding on these verses. Cuomo’s lead is melodically sound, but subdued — not like the cough syrup molasses that coats the vocals of The Green Album, but like that of a shy young romantic disappointed by yet another fruitless night out. In the background, Sharp’s aforementioned doubling is truly sublime, but there are a number of other touches that are just as ethereal: that angelic echo, “in the air;” the double-tracked, octave’d Cuomo carrying us into the chorus; the counterpoint of the “pretty toenails” backing vocal at the end of the 2nd verse. It may not quite be the best vocal arrangement in the Weezer canon, but it might just be the most subtle and sparely beautiful.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: that first chorus, however inevitable it may have been (even with Weezer’s first album, it must have been obvious that this was a band that could never resist the chorus rockout), still manages to take you to a higher place, that swelling rush of feedback bridging the gap between the illusory verse and the harsh reality of the refrain. “Only in dreams / We see what it means / Reach out our hands / Hold onto hers,” Cuomo intones, a little firmer than before. “But when we wake / It’s all been erased” — a great betrayal of expectations that set the template for lyrical themes echoed in “Why Bother?” and “Crazy One” — “And so it seems / Only in dreams.” Ending as it begins; perfectly symmetrical, symmetrically perfect.
“You walk up to her,” Cuomo gently croons, back in the peaceful respite of dreamland. “Ask her to dance.” And then, just like the fear of getting rejected, of feeling the sting, a small, atmospheric wave of feedback hums in the distance, conjuring the hazy boundaries of a dream as much as it does nervous regret. But the girl replies that she “might take a chance” — she even calls us “baby!” — and the feeling subsides. Those little guitar harmonics appear once more, like a smile of grateful relief.
Sadly, without even quite realizing it yet, there are signs that this just can’t be real: the girl’s floating in the air as she dances with us, defying the laws of gravity. The atmospheric feedback returns, but we are so pleased with the pretty delusion in our arms that it doesn’t even sound that threatening anymore, actually kinda nice. Likewise, the morose little limp we had when we entered the dancehall reappears, the same notes as before but now more of a slow-dance sway than a slumped head staring at its feet. Things seem to have really turned around — it pays to be outgoing after all, doesn’t it?
Now, before that feedback we had come to trust rips our world apart with a second shot of reality-infused distortion, allow me to recap: What has transpired up to this point is sheer, unfettered brilliance. It is gorgeous, it is flawless, it affects us in a remarkably complex way that we can’t properly analyze until we sit down and really think about it, but still understand on an implicit level from the very first listen. Reflecting on the fact that this song was written by a 21-year-old — and recorded in its complete form by a 23-year-old, with one drummer and one bassist (remember, Brian Bell plays no guitar on Blue) — is absolutely incomprehensible, and further evidence that, had Cuomo focused on exploring this territory in greater detail, he truly could have been our generation’s Brian Wilson. Wilson recorded Pet Sounds when he was 23, and to be frank, “Dreams” is no less a marvel than any one of those songs (with the exception of the infallible “God Only Knows,” which really can’t be compared against anything), even with the acknowledged handicap that this song bears in being recorded three decades later. There’s just so much going on here, it’s so rich and evocative and poignant on so many levels. It is songwriting at its absolute best — and it only gets better from here.
The song’s lyrical thread ends after the repeat of the chorus, so let’s take this time to address the interesting subject of Cuomo’s choice to pluralize here: instead of “you see it what it means,” we see; instead of “your hands,” we reach with “ours.” The girl is left singular — “hold onto hers,” not theirs — so it’s not meant to broaden the scope of the narrative to a group, or anything like that. So, why? Of course, that’s a question that only Cuomo can answer definitively, I think it’s meant to further convey the indistinct physics of the dream world. Similarly, it could be a separation of the dream identity and the “real life” identity, and bringing those two identities together for a moment: this may all be transpiring in a dream (where else?), but the conscious Cuomo wants that girl just as badly as his dreaming self. The desire, the loneliness, the longing — be it real or imagined, physical or dreamed, it all stems from the same source.
This duality — the dreaming identity and the conscious identity — come together most clearly right after the second chorus concludes, when the dreamscape verse instrumentation returns, but Cuomo continues to chant the harsh reality (“only in dreams”) above, as if it’s being realized truly for the first time, like recognizing that this *is* a dream in and of itself. If there’s any merit to that insight, then the anguished, effusive repetition of the chorus — now distilled simply to those three titular words, shouted over and over — is a moment of violent lucidity. Here the lyrical thread of the song ends, but the narrative thread does not.
In the three and a half minutes that follow, neither Cuomo nor his bandmates utter a single word, letting an extended musical passage speak for itself in a brave decision that the band has not had the guts (or perhaps even interest) to make in the decade and a half since. Once the refrained rage subsides, we are left once again with that bassline, a dreamy cycle of notes oscillating above like the sparkle and glow of stars falling along the black night. That once-foreboding guitar feedback is recast as a gentle reprieve, sighing in the distance with a sound like whales crying.
At 5:20, there is a change: quiet waves of guitar begin to build strength like a flowing tide, gently bruising layer after layer. The bass begins to quicken its pace, as does Wilson’s devotion to the ride cymbal, the guitars getting louder and louder still. That graceful manipulation of feedback rises in and out, crushing endlessly as the guitar harmonies around it grow denser and more euphonic by the moment. The cymbal begins to crash, the entire sonic front becoming almost impossible to penetrate or resist, now all consuming — it’s a sound you could drown in, an expanse as wide and deep as the ocean itself.
The guitars refuse, rising above the weight in growing numbers before a snare fill and one truly liberating cymbal crash set us free, soaring headlong into a six-string sea of euphoria. Wilson’s attacking the drums like a madman, with a fervor that, for all Pinkerton‘s might and power, he would never again come close to matching, Rivers against Rivers against Rivers, shredding the necks of a thousand guitars into a million splinters, the metalhead shut-in from Connecticut’s finest and most glorious moment of fret-burning self-actualization, honoring and murdering his childhood idols in a 45-second bout of epic guitar heroics as good as anybody’s. If you are left without hairs standing on end, you are hairless; if your heart doesn’t skip a beat, it didn’t have a pulse to begin with.
Since I mentioned earlier the number of creative inputs this song had, it would be regrettable not to explore a few of them. Lyrically, the second verse of OID in particular harkens back to the old Phil Spector song originally made famous by the Crystals, “Then I Kissed Her,” which begins, “Well I walked up to her and I asked her if she wanted to dance / She looked awful nice, and so I hoped she might take a chance.” One would imagine that the cover by heavy Blue Album inspirations the Beach Boys would have been where Cuomo picked this one up, but the man himself later insisted that it was KISS’ version that had inspired him (considering adolescent Cuomo loved KISS before young man Cuomo loved the Beach Boys, this does make sense). The embryonic Kitchen Tape demo of this song (released on The Blue Album Deluxe, clocking in at a relatively trim 5:48) reveals that there was also a very Pixies/Nirvana influence on the quiet/loud structure of the song (check out the Cobain-mimicry going on during the final chorus; speaking of that version, it has a very beautiful guitar outro that needs to be heard, although the tune still feels a bit neutered without its grand conclusion). Lastly a sly tip-off in 2008’s “Heart Songs” suggests that Debbie Gibson’s old hit single “Only In My Dreams” may have loosely inspired the root concept behind Cuomo’s song.
Then again, Cuomo can’t always be trusted: during his fan-hating Maladroit phase, he maintained that the “Dreams” bassline was a direct rip-off of the bass from the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her,” which not only sounds ridiculous on paper, but also when you compare the songs head-to-head (similarities: zero). This point segues nicely into Weezer’s unfortunate 2001/2002 devaluation of OID, during which point Cuomo erroneously claimed (in direct message board correspondence with fans) that the band “hated” OID upon its completion, but “couldn’t find any other songs to take its place” (which, even then, fans knew enough to tell was a total fib). In the summer of ’01, Cuomo and company bastardized the song by only playing the “solo” segment of the song (that is, the instrumental last few minutes of it), which unwittingly served as an apt (and fucking sacrilegious) metaphor for one of Maladroit‘s biggest failings (its resolutely contextless “rawk”). 2002 versions saw a return of the “full” song, but were hardly any better: then-newby bassist Scott Shriner was apparently given free rein with improvisation and the effects pedal for this song, and he butchered it mercilessly night after night. Sorry, guys: you don’t fucking mess with that bassline.
Thankfully, OID seems to have come back into favor with the band. Brian Bell — who I sincerely doubt even remotely appreciated the “artistic license” the band was taking with the song in the early ’00s — when asked what his favorite Weezer song during 2008’s Troublemaker Tour, first thought of “Only In Dreams.” Sadly, the band has not performed it since those misguided performances in ’02; one hopes they bring this song back to finally do it justice again the next time they hit the road.
And by the way, if you haven’t scoped it: this is essential viewing.