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Undone — The Sweater Song

Writing about “Undone” is no mean task: not only is it the song that first broke Weezer into the mainstream, it’s also the most performed song in their entire career. I have doubts that Weezer has ever played a full setlist without playing this song — even in the doldrums of Rivers Cuomo’s audience-hating, early catalog-renouncing phase of summer 2001, this song still met rapturous applause every single night. The number of times this song has been performed since its 1991 inception, if somehow documented and tallied, would inevitably stagger — especially for a band as prone to hiatuses as Weezer.

Which is a bit odd, because Cuomo *has* denounced this song in the press before. It really is a shame that I can’t relocate the quote for the life of me right now, because sometime shortly after the release of The Blue Album, he was quoted as saying it was (to paraphrase) the most embarrassingly simple song he’s ever put out, due to the simple I-IV-V-IV chord sequence of the riff that runs throughout the song, with some slight variations and changes later on (and of course, the temptation is too great here not to mention that many later Weezer songs — i.e., “Beverly Hills,” “Hash Pipe” — are founded upon even simpler progressions with even less variation, if any at all). I really do wish I could find that quote, dammit. Anyone out there know what I’m talking about?

No matter: Cuomo’s live record since then has easily reflected a change of heart since that harsh criticism. And in truth, the original quotation could be nothing more than typical “I Suck” Cuomo deprecation, since “Undone” is actually probably one of the most subtly complex songs Cuomo has ever written. As noted pop critic and Sound Opinions talkshow host Jim DeRogatis has pointed out, it was a (successful) pop single that had, in his words, “at least three distinct movements.” To date, the song remains one of the most charmingly strange and anthemic songs from the 1990s, a period when strange and quirky songs had amassed their greatest mainstream per capita since perhaps the pre-Beatles era (this side of Japan, at the least).

That said, with all the scores of versions to choose from, it makes sense to begin with the one that the world heard first: the album version (or the slightly truncated single edit, if we wanted to be really picky, but we don’t). The song begins with one of Weezer concerts’ two Instantly Recognizable Drum Intros (the other being “El Scorcho,” naturlich), and from there, the mise en scène of the song gently coalesces: Pat Wilson’s half-asleep drum beat, Matt Sharp’s rolling bassline (straight outta the Kim Deal playbook), and the loopy, slightly deranged bent of Cuomo’s guitar melody. I’ve heard the vibe of the song described equally well as both “mental breakdown music” and “heroin.” There’s just something drugged out about it, either on a hard drug or some kind of mental health med that isn’t quite working right. It’s set at just the right tempo (established by a click track, close listening has revealed) — any quicker and the effect would be lost; any slower and that riff would pitter-patter like Chinese water torture.

Something very odd for a pop single happens here: an extended spoken word section. For no less than half a minute,  a surfer brah caricature played by Sharp converses with a particularly deep-voiced (and uninterested) Karl Koch (band historian, archivist and occasional musical cameo) — a move that was pretty unprecedented by any other Billboard hit before or since (even after obvious spinoffs like Nada Surf’s “Popular” became commonplace, “Undone” remains unique in this regard). Finally, a bit after the 0:50 mark, Cuomo enters with his verse, keeping it brief as if to get to the point already:

I’m me
Me be
I am
I can
Sing and
Hear me
Know me

What reads like weird, half-coherent beat poetry is made into some pretty cool (and heartily sung) anti-melody that is the earliest released instance of Cuomo’s now-signature (and damn near worn out) sing-song rap style — as well as the Official Weezer Curse Word of the ’90s, “Goddamn.” With a lurch of feedback, we’re finally delivered into the chorus, which Bell doubles Cuomo in singing, “If you want to destroy my sweater / Hold this thread as I walk away.” Cuomo himself has explained the line’s inspiration like so:

It was in my English class that I heard the analogy of the unraveling sweater. Dr. Eisenstein used the image to demonstrate the effectiveness of focused thesis statement in an essay. “All I have to do is hold a single thread in your sweater and it will unravel as you walk away.”

Which Cuomo cleverly weaves into an evocative bit of romantic metaphor, as though to say, you can storm out of this argument and the thread of our relationship will unravel right behind you. Neat.

From there, there’s another dialogue section, but this one is wisely briefer — made notable for the appearance of Mykel Allan (one half of the Mykel & Carli duo that were perhaps the first two die-hard Weezer fans ever, and the managers of the official Weezer fanclub until their untimely and tragic deaths in 1997). The second verse follows, with one of my all-time favorite examples of the classic Matt Sharp falsetto — it gives the two syllable gibberish lines such a cool, unnerving effect, really adding to that mental dementia vibe I mentioned earlier. There’s something very schizophrenic about it (especially the way Sharp half-echoes the “bye bye” — brilliant!), which is only reinforced by the lyrics:

Oh no
It go
It gone
Bye-bye (bye!)
Who I?
I think
I sink
And I die!

After some delectable little variations in the chorus (a Cuomo trademark the absence of which severely compromised his songwriting during his obsessive “strophic composition” phase of the late ’90s/’00s), Cuomo tears into the first solo of the song — and man is it ever bitchin’! Gotta love the way it continues to amble well into the third chorus. Which itself becomes pretty badass when, upon its repetition, Bell repeats the four lines we’ve grown accustomed to by this point, while Cuomo shouts a new chorus in the foreground:

I don’t want to destroy your tanktop
Let’s be friends, and just walk away
Hate to see you lyin’ there in your Superman skivvies
Lyin’ on the floor, lyin’ on the floor, I’ve come undone

Which is a pretty damn smart little nuance: it’s a sudden diversion that deliciouly splits the listener’s attention span in two halves, making “Undone” even more of a cerebral listen than your standard pop chart fare. But what’s really cool is how it works musically: the words still line up in certain points (“to destroy your,” “and just walk away” — not to mention the awesome way “let’s be friends” and “hold this thread” rhyme while being sung at the same time! hot damn!), and the little moments of vocal consonance and harmony in a section of dissonance and counterpoint is simply fantastic. Not to mention that the rhythm section is adding in some extra thick-n-heavy power chords  and cymbal crashes now, which sees the gentle head-nod groove established at the song’s beginning developing into an increasingly spirited head-bang. Which is a trend that only continues when Cuomo and Bell hold out that last “UNDOOOOONE” for a few impassioned bars.

And then, god damn it: Cuomo rips into another solo, which gently frays the senses for a moment, before Bell and Sharp add in an “ooh-ooh-ooh” vocal pantomine of the arpeggiated progression that began the song, all while Cuomo begins to really savage his fretboard. Pretty soon Wilson’s bludgeoning the drums, and the tension only increases —Christ, are those “ooh-ooh-ooh” things catchy! And as Cuomo’s guitar begins breaking out of the atmosphere my mind begins to melt. Wilson’s cymbals sound like a fucking sea of cicadas close to those final moments there, and when the climax finally concludes, that main melody loops itself around a nifty little keyboard sound while the shambled guitars groan and whimper in the wake of their trauma. (At this point, repeated listens will reveal a very nearly buried acoustic guitar track in the mix, further speaking to the attention to detail that characterized these sessions.) Around now is when the single version fades out, but for the album version Cuomo appends an outro that is the sound of a piano being tortured in some kind of extra-dimensional music hell. It’s a bit out of place, but it’s one of the most explicitly strange and experimental things committed to tape by a young band that left most of its brilliance to keen subtlety, like the silent genius who favored the back of the class over raising hand. And it comes at the end of an undeniably great song, so hey, it’s pretty cool.

At this point it would be good to run down a few of the notable versions of this song that exist, as there are many. Way back on the pre-Bell, pre-Blue “Kitchen Tape” band demo, Weezer laid down a prototype version of the song that was founded on the brick and mortar of a steady acoustic guitar, featured a little more adventurous bass work from Sharp, and, most notably, foregos the later dialogue section for something more along the lines of what the band does when they play this song live: sing/say whatever comes to mind. And this is probably the coolest sing/say section in “Undone” history: Sharp rambles wistfully about money, Cuomo tellingly quotes the Pixies’ classic “Hey” and admits, as though in a confession booth, “I wanna be a singer like Black Francis,” and then-guitarist Jason Cropper raps emphatically about something that hilariously concludes, “I hate talk shows so much, I want to KILL them!” Hearing them all go at once is an extremely disorienting (and fucking awesome) moment, and it’s a spine-tingling great effect when Sharp ascends into a melodic little falsetto. I think this arrangement is much more in line with the spirit of the song than the spoken word dialogues that would come to replace it, although I think that those dialogues were such a peculiar little touch that “Undone” might not have been the unexpected runaway hit that it was without them. In any case, it’s nice to have this document, and it too can be yours if you go out and get yourself a copy of The Blue Album‘s deluxe reissue.

What else, what else? Well, it’s worth noting that throughout the Blue sessions Koch was assembling a sound collage that the band was planning to have on the final version of the song, but Geffen Records rolled their eyes at the prospect of sample clearings and royalties, and axed the idea in the eleventh hour (hence the last-minute decision to do some Gen X parody dialogue instead) — but that version remains unsurfaced. Out of what we do have, one of my favorites is a 1995 version at the Black Sessions in Paris, which wonderfully captures Weezer at the crossroads between Blue and the developing, then-nascent Pinkerton style. As such, the song is significantly slowed down and articulately messied up — it’s a great version, Sharp quotes Radiohead’s “Creep” in the second spoken word section (which is a lot fucking better than Scott Shriner leading Weezer in a paint-by-numbers cover of “Creep” in 2008), and Bell deserves a Grammy for the ridiculous length of time he (successfully) holds onto that final “UNDONE” shout. Really now, just listen to that fucking thing. Damn.

Speaking of Pinkerton, there’s a bizarre 1997 acoustic version done for Y100’s Sonic Sessions in Philadelphia wherein certified madman Timothy “Speed” Levitch saunters into the studio and nasally recites some truly fuckawful poetry over where the dialogue usually is (and where it usually isn’t, as well). Well past the point where Pinkerton had made itself a clear commercial failure, this was the last thing Weezer needed then and there: I’ve long imagined that the band hearing this crap poet shit all over their first hit song was the exact moment they realized they had hit rock bottom, and Cuomo decided in his mind, “Fuck art. I require commercial efficiency.” Five bucks says dude had written “Brightening Day” and the entire second half of The Green Album in his head by the time this shit performance ended.

Inevitably I’m going to forget some key “Undone” versions from the hundreds that exist, but ones that come to mind: a crowd-pleasing Rivers Cuomo Band version that took place in a Boston club in 1998, which features Cuomo awesomely going solo on an extended rap song quotation with some real hip-hop swagger (can anyone discern enough of those words to know what song he’s quoting? it’s the 1/14/98 bootleg); the MTV All Access performance of this song in 2001, which I believe a particularly stylin’ Mikey Welsh kicked the shit out of; a slew of Make Believe tour performances that, in proto-Hootenanny fashion, allowed for one lucky fan per show to crowd surf up to the stage, grab an acoustic guitar and play with the band — which on the tour with the Foo Fighters led to a not-so-coincidental performance featuring Dave Grohl, which I really do wish would surface in MP3 form soon (in the meantime, this clip captures the essence pretty well, I imagine — by the way Cuomo’s smiling, you might as well call this the beginning of his current ambition to collaborate with every contemporary musician beneath the sun).

And perhaps most notably, there’s the version that Cuomo and Sharp cobbled together on the fly during their first and only time sharing the stage together since Sharp’s unamicable departure from the band in 1997. It took place in a little coffee shop in Fullerton, CA on 2/12/04 — Sharp was playing what was billed as an ordinary solo show of his, before he welcomed the ultimate surprise guest to the stage at the set’s conclusion. After a crowd-warming rendition of “Say It Ain’t So,” Sharp and Cuomo intended to pack it up, but the demand for another song was too much.

In a sentimental moment like straight out of a movie, Cuomo ventures, “We could probably do ‘Sweater Song’ in our sleep.” Sharp groans as he tries to remember the chords, but soon he is reminded by a member of the audience. And then, in a playful moment like straight out of a Pinkerton fanboy’s ultimate dream, Cuomo remembers, “He usually raps over the verse,” and, with a mischevious laugh, challenges his old friend/enemy to “improv a rap” — and just like that, Sharp’s doing the goddamn smoothest quote of 2Pac’s “Picture Me Rollin'” you’ve ever heard. Then that verse, with fucking MATT SHARP FALSETTO after all those years. It’s not perfect — Sharp funnily admits that “Picture Me Rollin'” is the only rap song he knows during the second spoken word section, Cuomo forgets some lyrics in the repeated chorus and Sharp, then silent, sounds as though he’s waiting for Brian Bell to sing his part — but damned if it isn’t heartwarming. And it’s especially nice to hear after you’ve endured the tasteless massacre of “Undone” that was the 2008 Troublemaker tour version, during which Cuomo consistently rambled himself into total trainwrecks, missed cues, flubbed parts and seemed unable to give half a shit otherwise. Maybe Sharp should swing a solo tour through Fullerton again sometime…