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Heart Songs

Back in July of 2006, fans were preparing for yet another Weezer hiatus. In the second week of that month an article broke on titled Rivers Cuomo Says Weezer Are ‘Done’ For Now — Again. Despite the frontman’s expressed reluctance to create another Weezer album, he admitted that he was still finding excitement in songwriting, and mentioned two recent works in particular — an autobiographical ode to his many musical influences titled “Heart Songs,” and an anthem for the men’s U.S. soccer team then called “Our Time Will Come.” He elaborated:

All this year, I’ve been feeling pretty creative and excited, so I’ve been writing a lot. I don’t know what’ll happen with these songs — if anything — I just sort of write them and I can’t stop. I certainly don’t see them becoming Weezer songs, and I don’t really see the point of a solo career. So we’ll just have to see.

While “Our Time Will Come” would later be finished as “My Day Is Coming” and released on Alone II — a demo series that more or less constitutes the solo career he then considered pointless — it’s more significant that at the time Cuomo felt “Heart Songs” was “certainly” not meant for Weezer. Significant because when he eventually changed his mind and rounded up the band to make 2008’s Red Album it would include “Heart Songs” — and because his first instinct was right.

It’s not often that I reference Mark Prindle here. While he is generally a rock critic (and comedian) par excellence, his lukewarm appraisal of both The Blue Album and Pinkerton suggests that he’s just not the type of person who would “get” Weezer — but truth be told, his frank judgments on their post-2000 work is usually pretty fair. And the words he spares for “Heart Songs” in his review of The Red Album bear repeating:

“Heart Songs” is the most embarrassing piece of musico-nostalgic schlock I’ve heard since The Righteous Brothers’ “Rock & Roll Heaven.” Go download it now. It includes lyrics like “Eddie Rabbitt sang about how much he loved a rainy night/Abba, Devo, Benatar were there the day John Lennon died.” All sung completely straight-faced. As many lackluster songs as this band has produced, none have ever been as all-encompassingly putrid as this one.

And really, that about sums it up for me. The 808 drum machine heartbeat, and the fake hi-hat rolls that start appearing shortly before the first chorus; the overproduced vocal embellishments (“Joan Baez!”) that cut through the verses, as well as the frustrating no man’s land Cuomo straddles there between lazy verse melody and straightup rap; the lyrical subject matter as well as Cuomo’s cringe-worthy wordplay, from “hippie songs could be heard in our pad” to the cheesy schlock overload of the chorus: it’s just all so scantly believable.

In my opinion, “Heart Songs” is the crux of The Red Album — it’s the moment that establishes the record as a failure. And although the straight-faced delivery of the song’s verse/chorus structure is absolutely reprehensible, you can pinpoint that precise moment of critical self-combustion on the bridge that follows, signalled when the acoustic pretense is dropped in favor of an unimaginatively dramatic palm-mute build. Acoustic moments are rare and cherishable in the world of Weezer, but an electric cliche like this one actually feels like something of a respite in context. That is, until you see where the lyrics are going:

Back in 1991
I wasn’t having any fun
‘Til my roommate said “Come on and put a brand new record on”
Had a baby on it
He was naked on it
Then I heard the chords that broke the chains I had upon me
Got together with my bros in some rehearsal studios
Then we played our first rock show and watched our fanbase start to grow
We signed a deal to get the dough to make a record of our own
Song come on the radio, now people go: “This is the song
These are my heart songs.”

See, The Red Album is full of ambiguity — little moments that indulge in what bored record critics often call “hip-hop braggadocio,” a la the ego-stroking “Troublemaker,” “Pork and Beans,” and the self-explanatory “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived” (hint: Cuomo wrote it about himself). Coupled with the album’s cover image, Red came close to justifying itself as “art” in that it could be conceived as a concept album/game of “Are they serious?” smoke and mirrors (which is itself a precarious foundation for a piece of art, but is at least more interesting — and fun — than, say, Maladroit‘s hostile insubstantiality). The house of cards doesn’t fall down so much as spontaneously combust when this bridge drops, though: Weezer fans have long yearned to find moments this earnest and sincere in Cuomo’s post-2000 works, but it’s actually disgusting when that sincerity is so smug and delusional in its self-congratulation. Cuomo explicitly lords over “the singers in the other bands” and every other man who (/”that”) has ever lived, and that’s what makes this moment of crystallizing sincerity so offputting: as Prindle put it when discussing “Pork and Beans,” it “demonstrates Rivers’ inability to admit (or recognize?) that he is not ‘above’ writing happy songs with catchy choruses that sound designed for radio success; in fact, it’s all he fucking writes!!!”

And we haven’t even discussed how fucking literal this “Heart Songs” moment really is: singing like Cobain when referencing Cobain should be beneath the vocabulary of someone who was speaking with such musical and conceptual fluency as a young twentysomething; referring to Matt Sharp and Pat Wilson (even Jason Cropper) as “my bros” should be considered sacrilege on the level of Asher Roth (or simply poor taste); actually dropping the term “fanbase” in song and explaining how they were signed — again, scantly fucking believable. And the irony of giving a shout-out to the fans who got into this band via brilliant songs like “Undone” and “Say It Ain’t So” in a song that thoroughly shits on those fans (and those songs’ legacy) should not be missed, nor forgiven.

So yeah, suddenly the royal proclamations of “Greatest Man” and the defiant themes of “Troublemaker” and “Pork and Beans” (the three tracks on the album that preceded this one) don’t seem somewhat relatable or even funny anymore. It’s clear in “Heart Songs” that Cuomo’s got one inflated ego that, simply put, the last four albums of his career have utterly failed to sustain (in fact, one could say that Cuomo’s self-confidence has risen over the years, inversely proportional to the downward trajectory of his albums’ cohesion and, therefore, overall lasting quality). And the songs that come after suffer for it, too: the more outgoing moments of the otherwise static “Everybody Get Dangerous” and “Dreamin’” feel even more out of place than they would have, the mostly unredeemable suite of non-Rivers songs that follows is amplified as another symptom of how out of touch this band (and its ringleader) has become, and even “The Angel and the One” — an intensely personal and moving song that is probably the best piece of music to make it to a Weezer album’s final tracklisting since “Butterfly” — takes a serious blow simply for being the closer of such a ridiculously scizophrenic, aimless album (speaking of “Butterfly,” imagine it not as the closer to Pinkerton but rather having been tacked onto the end of Maladroit, and that’s about as much “The Angel” suffers here). Perhaps we should be glad that instant classics like “Miss Sweeney,” “The Spider” and “Pig” weren’t placed on The Red Album proper: we can appreciate them on their own separate merit, rather than have them sullied by sharing space with a song like this one.

As a bit of a postscript, I want to mention that this song’s obscured merits make the final product mess of it all that much more regretable. The acoustic design of the song is a welcomed change of pace from Weezer’s usual fare, it’s nice to hear Cuomo singing about something he really cares about (however misguidedly), Wilson’s tasteful handling of the skins and cymbals deserves props, the cellos on the chorus really are a sweet touch, and most of all, the musical build and release of the bridge into that final chorus — lush in harmony and strings — can send shivers down the spine when completely removed from its lyrical context. That the band was capable of taking all these wonderful inputs and creating quite possibly the worst song of their career with them is no small feat.