Although The Green Album is almost universally considered Weezer’s strongest offering of the past decade — some fans even ascribe it the “classic” status usually reserved for the band’s first two albums — there remains a consensus that the record is a bit of a missed opportunity. In 2002, not even a year removed from the record’s release, Rivers Cuomo himself wrote an email to Weezer fan Ridd Sorenson with the following thought:
Do you think it’s possible that the songs on Green are actually really good and that we just choked in the studio? I mean, not just me, but all four of us in Weezer. I feel like if we had managed to attack the songs with more conviction, people wouldn’t have noticed the things like impersonal lyrics or repetitive song structures as much.
It’s a bit crass of Cuomo to have chalked the blame up to “all four of us in Weezer” since Green is the Weezer album over which he asserted the most dictatorial control, but his concerns here ring true: simply put, the pointedly undercooked and dashed-off vibe of the album compromises the immense potential of its material. “Hash Pipe,” “Island In The Sun,” “Photograph” and “Knock-Down Drag-Out” are about as fleshed-out as they need to be, but there’s a definite sense of the incomplete and undeveloped in the other six tracks on the record (and not in an artful, Kafkan sense). It’s no coincidence that most Weezer fans can agree that until the fourth or fifth attentive listen of the record, about half of the tunes are hard to distinguish from one another.
For my money, “Smile” is the song that most embodies this deepest flaw in the album’s design. It is perhaps the standout melody on an album full of truly great ones, wedded to a chord progression to match; the lyrics, although a little obtuse (more on that later), are befitting and quite gorgeous; and the double-Cuomo, stadium-reverbed harmonies provide an epic majesty to the song’s delivery. But the arrangement is characterized by the same overdriven guitars, buried bass presence and barely-interesting drumming as is the rest of the record — and the super-compressed production quality is just as flat and sterile. It’s a beautiful song, but it feels like it’s smothering itself in the trappings of Green, which would explain why it takes much longer to enter the listener’s consciousness as a highlight track before, say, “Island In The Sun” or “Photograph” — though I would argue that the potential wrapped inside of “Smile” is much greater than that of either of those songs.
To wit? Well, we have two examples. The first comes from this montage of footage from the recording of The Green Album:
The clip is an odd and entertaining one (it’s very endearing to see the band acting like a bunch of teenagers at the sunset of their twenties, as if getting the last of their adolescent giggles out), but fast forward to the 7:15 mark and you’ll be treated to a rather muffled take of Cuomo playing “Smile” by his lonesome on the piano (an instrument that makes not one appearance on Green). Because of the atmospherics of the room, it’s instrumental as far as we can hear for the most of its duration, but the true beauty of those chord changes comes to light when you shear away all the chugging guitars and vacuum-sealed compression. At around 7:44 you can hear Cuomo singing very beautifully, and as he shifts into the bridge I hear a resemblance to “Hey Jude” that would otherwise be completely undetectable in the song. It’s a very moving little clip, and one that makes me hope that a pared down recording of this song exists in some form or another — and that we might eventually get to hear it.
Another example is a cover by the Japanese band Sumrus, which can be found on the Across the Sea tribute album. If you can get by the absolutely awful accent of the lead singer (“Oben tha door and let stuff come down / Ober tha warl you’re spinnin’ lound ‘n louw…”) and appreciate the brilliance of the arrangement, the fact that Weezer practically murdered this song’s potential in the studio becomes difficult to deny. The ethereal quality and slow build of the first minute is breathtaking — from angelic clean arpeggios to overlaid acoustic harmonies, feedback squall and sinewy bass, the song evokes a perfect blend between Weezer and Jesus and the Mary Chain before the drums even enter. The lovely brief instrumental break, the orgasmic Pinkerton shredding of the guitar solo, and the quiet piano outro are all relatively obvious moves, but they’re fucking perfect for the song, and if Weezer had spent the couple extra days they would’ve needed to come up with arrangements like these for this and the other five blatantly undercooked songs on Green, we would have had an album truly worthy of “classic” status. A take on this version performed with the mastery of a clear-headed Weezer and the beauty (and, erm, enunciation) of a Cuomo lead vocal would be absolutely stunning.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning a few of the other versions of this song floating around out there. First of all, there’s an “Early Green Album Leak” version of “Smile” that goes by its original title “Inside A Smile.” But the title isn’t the only thing that’s longer, as it reveals that the concise 2:39 of the officially released version was once 3:21 — though I think the band were wise to trim the recording down to its essentials. Also noteworthy is that the album version lyrics of “Standing there deep in front of you / Take a look inbetween my eyes” was formerly “Standing there in the ocean blue / Take a look deep within my eyes,” and I can’t quite decide which I prefer: I like the obtuse quality to “deep in front of you” (what’s “deep in front of you” mean, exactly?), but the dream-like associations of standing “in the ocean blue” — while a little cliched — are quite nice, and do fit that epic/majestic vibe of the recording I mentioned earlier. Perhaps it would’ve been nice to have both on the record, alternating between the two, but that’s a point almost too minor to fuss over.
The band also posted several live versions of this song on their official website during the Extended Hyper Midget Tour of 2002, including the one from their appearance on HBO’s Reverb program. The solo’s slightly improved, it’s nice to hear Brian Bell on the harmony instead of a second Cuomo, Pat Wilson’s drums are a little more alive and it’s cool to have more bass presence, even if it’s Scott Shriner playing the thing and not Mikey Welsh. There’s also a pretty funny 12/02/01 take that begins with Cuomo asking the crowd for requests, and replying to the unintelligible din of screams with a simple, “Cool. This is probably not what you want to hear” — very typical of his Maladroit asshole phase (as is the directionless solo). Lastly, I have a performance from what I believe is a 2005 tour, in which guitarist Bell inexplicably takes to lead vocals and the piano for a rather cheesy, wanking performance that is far from the beautiful sound of Cuomo rehearsing it on piano some four or five years prior.
Lastly, I can’t get out of this post without mentioning the popular fan theory that this song is at least partially about oral sex. Lines like “The way you wanna wrap me up / Inside a smile” and especially “Water me, girl, and let me ease the drought” (really, what other context would that second one make sense in?) lend the claim some legitimacy…Making such a pretty ballad into a hidden ode to fellatio might be unprecedented in the Weezer canon, but it’s not something I’d put past the mischievous Cuomo of the early aughts. (For a blunter insight into this theory, listen carefully to the line “Your fine face I can’t take” and think of what it might be commonly misheard as…)