When I wrote about Red Album deluxe track/outtake “Miss Sweeney” I spoke of the euphoria of hearing a classic Weezer track so deep into the new millennium, and the band’s new arena rock/radio pop M.O. But “Sweeney” is far from the first post-Y2K sign of life. Perhaps the brightest beacon in memory came April 9, 2007: music news/gossipper Idolator posted a link to a fresh Rivers Cuomo demo as their leak of the day, which was said to come from an anonymous tipster. Fans report having seen the MP3 originate in an official Weezer.com posting, where it remained for a few hours before mysteriously disappearing again — suggesting that Cuomo leaked the song himself, as he has done more than a few times in the past. The fact that it is the only recording that has leaked from his highly sought-after Delivrance At Hand! home demos crop (circa late ’06/early ’07) seems to corroborate this theory, as if a fan were to have gotten ahold of it, the entire thing would have likely leaked.
Its provenance didn’t particularly matter; what mattered was the raw beauty of the soul and emotion shimmering right on the song’s surface. As various other music blogs picked up the story and the MP3, fan reactions far and wide were largely ecstatic:
Thats pretty much the best thing Rivers has written in about a decade.
Those lyrics, that harmony, that simple emotion, and that smooth, soft melody remind of my favorite band from the 90’s. Thank you Rivers for keeping it real and bringing it back at an ever-so-needed time.
Is that you, Rivers? Haven’t seen you in a while…what feels like ten years…
And they were right. Musically, the song is an epiphany: the confident strum and thrum of a threadbare acoustic guitar, a loose-lipped rap verse that sounds more “El Scorcho” than “Beverley Hills” (or God forbid, “Mo’ Beats”), a most triumphant and fitting return of the fabled ’90s falsetto, elegant and simple piano chords that remind one of the warm wood stove and fireplace in “Longtime Sunshine,” an even more unbelievable (and fucking beautiful) throwback in the form of true harmonica catharsis on the chorus…It’s almost as though Rivers Cuomo opened up a Weezer forum one morning, read some Pinkerton worshipper’s latest refried diatribe, and said, “All right, fine.” Walked over to the guitar in the corner of his room, whipped out the notebook, and drew out some musical staves like the old days.
“This one’s for the little bitches.”
The song’s not just a retread, though — what’s so heart-rendingly beautiful about this song is that it picks out many of the things that worked so well about early Weezer, then travels new territory with them. This is the first glimpse the fans would get of Cuomo’s post-Make Believe exasperation with the standard verse/chorus/verse pop form, the one that he boiled down to an assembly line formula back in 2001: that is to say, I can only refer to the song’s emotional climax as a “chorus” for lack of a better word. The song is essentially one winding, 90-second verse that builds to a gorgeous pinnacle that, just as naturally as it coalesced, falls apart into a brief reprise of the song’s opening thought. Thus concludes Cuomo, dropping his guitar with a thudding chord.
The lyrics are better discussed in the context of the full-band Weezer version recorded during the Red Album sessions — and I say that not because it’s the better version, necessarily. I have a hard time choosing on a given day because the demo does some things better than the band version (namely, Cuomo’s vocal performance, and the overall arrangement of the song: although there is a harmonica on the Weezer version it’s essentially obliterated from the mix by the band’s addiction to electric guitars, and the synth strings that augment the demo’s lush piano chords distract from their plaintive beauty), while the band version does some things better than the demo version…like best reflecting the lyrics. It’s hard for me to say which the better take is, so I won’t — something for the commenters to decide — but there are a couple small added touches that I think do a better job of painting the text of the song.
While the demo began with the proud strut of Cuomo’s worn and dirty acoustic, Weezer kicks things off with a roomy, marching drum beat from Pat Wilson (some of the best-sounding drums on a Weezer recording in ages!), perhaps meant to represent the sound of a caravan approaching the farm where the narrative of the song takes place. The muted cymbal crash (deliciously scrappy, I must say!) that introduces the acoustic guitar is like the gate to the farm clattering to a close behind us, and the swaying chords sound like the hustle and bustle of the barnyard life beginning to encircle us. Cuomo the Pig soon joins our coterie, and spins us the yarn of his life. Naturally, the tale begins with childhood:
When I was a baby, I was so happy
I played with my friends in the mud
Wilbur and Jack and Otis and Beatty
We were a gang, ya got to believe me
Mama would scold us if we got too rough
She didn’t care, she was proud of us…
It’s worth noting that the rapping verse and its falsetto backup from the demo are here intact, albeit a downgrade from the perfection of that magical home recording. But it’s certainly a serviceable performance, and reels us into the Pig’s little world quite nicely. It sounds like he had a nice childhood. The next couplet is very interesting — “I ran around and talked to the animals / Tellin’ ‘em stories of savage cannibals” — because while it’s clearly a sort of conversational aside, a little anecdote of what being a kid pig on the farm was like, it’s the sole reference to anything impure in the entirety of the verse vignette. “Savage cannibals” — an interesting concept, especially one for a little pig to have heard about, or perhaps concocted in his own imagination (after all, he’s the one telling the story to everyone else). Its exact meaning is up to interpretation, but it does two things for me: firstly, there’s a sort of literary quality to it which I think makes this song’s inadvertent reference to Orwell’s Animal Farm all the more tangible; and secondly, the dark allusion certainly serves to foreshadow the grizzly inevitable of this tale’s conclusion.
Then I got older and noticed a girl
First I was sure I didn’t exist to her
I sulked around but I didn’t know why
Then she put her cheek on my shoulder, and I
Was lookin’ at her and she was lookin’ at me
We started to smile: it was our destiny
Tina was her name, she was my cutie pie
Forgot about the things that I used to like
Those synth strings enter with this turn in the plot, and with them our hearts begin to melt a little. How adorable is that? Cuomo of course can’t resist putting in a classic hopeless-romantic quip of his own (“I was sure I didn’t exist to her”), but what’s so cute about this story is that the love interest finds the Pig’s sulking endearing (something that never happened in one of Cuomo’s more autobiographical songs: perhaps an interesting subtext here is that something like that would only happen in a fairytale?). “We started to smile, it was our destiny” — so simple, so pure, as if Pet Sounds had just left Cuomo’s turntable yesterday. Gotta also love the “she was my cutie pie” line, a piece of nerdy-white-boy-rap slang that sounds like a discarded draft lyric from “Buddy Holly.” And all this set to such lovely music? Excuse the break in my analysis, but it’s almost too good to be true!
I spent all my time followin’ her around
My friends all made the whiplash sound
But they understood, they was happy for me
And everyone clapped when I asked her to marry me
And she said yes, and we felt so fine!
We lost track of the passin’ of time…
Before I knew it, we had our own babies
Gina and Shade and Kiwi and Ged
Of course, Weezer predictably adds sound effects where appropriate in this segment of the verse. While the demo perhaps wisely left these things to the imagination, when the Pig’s friends make “the whiplash sound,” Cuomo’s friends in Weezer are there to make it as part of the backing vocal track, and they even dub some percussive handclaps over the “everyone clapped when I asked her to marry me” line. Some have bemoaned this move as belaboring the obvious, but personally, I think it works nicely in the song: it’s cute and cheesy in an endearing way, and the handclaps are tasteful and fun enough that I can’t help but clap along whenever I hear them. And oh, the joyous release of that line, “She said yes, and we felt so fine!” It’s lovely — especially when Wilson helps express the point with a little drum roll that sounds almost like the clicking of someone’s heels, or maybe a lovestruck heart skipping a beat. In any case, it most certainly is the sound of a great musician and his talents being put to good use after so many years of being curbed and neglected.
Wilson’s building toms also make for a nice segue into the sad climax of the song, the prolonged inevitable finally realized:
But now, I have to die
I’ve lived a good life, I’ve got no complaints
I’d like to thank Farmer Pete
For bringing me scraps of food that I could eat
He always had a smile on his face
He didn’t want to think of this day
It’s finally here.
It’s finally here, oh…
Catharsis, pure and simple. While the austere beauty of the demo version’s simple, subtle chorus is truly something to behold, I think the electric release of the Weezer version captures the moment better. Those thick, strangled guitars, the piano fully centered now as doubled by a twinkling glockenspiel/xylophone that is TRULY right out of “Pink Triangle,” the harmonica buried deep in the mix (not heard so much as felt), and the backup vocal echoes/harmonies of “it’s finally here” push the emotional resonance of the moment into the red. Speaking of that piano, listen closely — it really hits on some violent, discordant chords in there, and the effect is nothing short of epic.
God, it keeps going! At this point Cuomo tears into a primal wail so loud and disembodied it sounds like it’s roaring down from the clouds above. And then, in beautiful layered harmony: “They called me Pig!” The guitars are SCREAMING now, Wilson letting loose all over the cymbals, a gloriously heavy and layered restatement of the unassuming tumbles and rolls of the intro — it’s just all so powerful, so gripping. For me, it ranks up there with — maybe even beats — any given old school Weezer song as THE best singalong experience in the band’s canon. When this song comes on in the car and I’m out on the highway, I throw my hands up in the air and shout along with this moment so hard that I am *guaranteed* not to have a voice anymore on the other side. Body-trembling, arm-shaking, rearview mirror-cracking catharsis — what a fucking moment. I can’t get over it. It’s just so, so powerful.
The lyrics only stoke the fire that much more: halfway through the extended verse we really came to like this Pig, the cute and endearing little personification that he is. That’s because despite the metaphor (or perhaps because of it), we can really relate — this is a human’s life just as much as it is a pig’s, which is emotionally poignant and potent on so many levels (the shock of the relatability segues into an identification with the Pig protagonist insofar that some listeners might choose to go vegetarian by the song’s conclusion). This point really comes to a head during that climax: the way the Pig gratefully accepts his cruel fate is, in no small way, a pretty apt metaphor for the way we deal with our concept of God. He gave us life, so even when he’s come to take it back from us, we thank him for the time we had — “I’ve lived a good life, I’ve got no complaints.” Could any of us ask for any more than to truly feel that way, at the end of the day? And yet, even as God, Farmer Pete approaches the Pig with a gun in his hand and regret in his heart. Is that remorse real or imagined? Wishful thinking, or does Farmer Pete really feel something for this Pig the way we do? Regardless, the day has come, it’s finally here, and even when we are brave and accepting, there’s an existential disbelief that comes with this moment of harshest reality. It’s finally here…
What happens next is as grand a triumph as anything Cuomo — maybe anyone — has ever achieved through song. That climax is the sound of the Pig lifting up off the earth and out of reality, already catching a glimpse of the forever just beyond the clouds, be it a pearly-gated heaven or perhaps a blackness as dark and endless as outerspace. But suddenly we’re sucked back down to the moment on earth, where the Pig lays patiently before his maker on the stump of a fallen tree. Knowing what’s about to happen, his life quickly flashes before his eyes, back to the moment that started it all — “When I was a baby, I was so happy, I played with my friends in the mud…” — and the arpeggiating guitar lines reach up to the sky, a rattling tambourine symbolic of the last cool breeze this Pig will ever feel on his skin.
Bang. Wilson hits the snare, and just like that the shotgun shell courses down the barrel, through the open air and directly into the Pig’s bowed head. He was still before, but now there’s a certain lifelessness to him as the blood spills from his skull, gently rolling down the side of the tree stump. The plaintive strum of the guitar pulls the great big Camera of Life away from the scene, Farmer Pete pausing to wipe his spectacles beneath the sepia tones of the setting autumn sun. The farm is instilled with a quiet reverence for the memory of the fine Pig, but you can tell as the sun dips beneath the horizon and the image fades to black, that this is something none of them will ever speak of again.
People: this is a song. I would close with a thought about how this is what Weezer should be about nowadays, and how this is something that should not have to be relegated to outtake/bonus track status — but as I sit here in the wake of this song, that feels beside the point. Forget Weezer for a moment: this is what music should be about; what cinema should be about; what art should be about; what life should be about. It’s rare that a song can so totally consume the heart as to really inspire one to change the fiber of his very existence, but that’s the kind of thing this song achieves for me. Rather than a reprimand or a suggestion, I’d rather take this opportunity to thank Cuomo for a piece of his mind, heart and soul. He truly has a rare and precious beauty in them all.