“Devotion” is, without question, the single most depressing song Rivers Cuomo has ever written.
That’s no small claim, especially considering the Pinkerton era from whence it came. The song is a b-side to the “El Scorcho” single and, like most Weezer b-sides, is fantastic: most all of the ones we’ve heard are as good if not better than the album they failed to make (perhaps excepting those of The Green Album; it’s also hard to tell with the Make Believe outtakes that have never been released, though brief clips suggest disproportionate excellence). But while the obviously superior quality of later Weezer b-sides to album tracks brings the band’s judgment into question (see “Miss Sweeney,” “Pig,” “Living Without You”), the Weezer of the ‘90s seemed to have a better grasp of what they were doing: tracks like “Susanne,” “Waiting On You” and “Mykel & Carli” can equal nearly any track on The Blue Album and Pinkerton, but trying to add or substitute them on to those records invariably ruins their delicate and near-perfect sequential flow.
“Devotion” is definitely among those great b-sides’ ranks, as it is not only the most depressing Cuomo composition in circulation, it is also one of his most subtle and brilliant. The tune begins with a volcanic eruption of midtempo guitars and drums, primarily driven by the forlorn organ figure that oozes down the center of the mix. While I most immediately sound with a heavy burden, I’ve also heard it described as “euphoric,” which isn’t entirely off base either. The emotion here is certainly a complex one, as the lyrics are soon to convey.
“Suddenly our shortcomings don’t seem to matter that much,” Cuomo begins, and for a moment it seems like this might be the meeting of a boy and girl whose personal halves have joined together, making a lovely and singular whole. But the way Cuomo dwells on these shortcomings for the remainder of the verse — the girl’s stupidity, his own physical imperfections — suggests that this isn’t quite the case.
That inkling is confirmed as Cuomo then expresses regret over having pushed this girl away, “waiting for Mrs. Right” — someone better. But the loving, harmonious admiration that begins the chorus makes it sound like everything’s okay now: “You never gave up devotion / Waiting for me / You’ll always be my girlfriend / I, too, waited for you / I’ll always be my…”
And then, that word: “Friend.”
Just like that, the imbalance in this relationship is solidified, and the happiness of the chorus makes the listener uneasy. This isn’t love, and Cuomo knows it: he lead on this poor girl, used her until he got bored, then tried to find someone that could truly capture his heart. This girl of his dreams — who he personifies as “Perfection” in the next verse — winds up cheating on him, and Cuomo, heartbroken, returns to this sadly devoted girl who pitifully embraces Cuomo once again. “You’ll always be my girlfriend” — Cuomo can always fall back on this girl. But she’ll always just be his friend: soon he’ll bore of her again, and break her heart once more.
This is the same kind of subtle abuse that lends emotional power to the thinly veiled misogyny of “No One Else.” They’re such resonant songs because of these insecurities, and just how honest Cuomo is about them: we come to despise the narrator of these songs (and with ‘90s Cuomo, we can be pretty sure that they are purely autobiographical), because the abuse is so deplorable. Perhaps the listener can relate because (s)he too has been the subject of this kind of “Devotion”-brand manipulation before, or even more uncomfortably, because the listener has manipulated and used someone else like this before. “No One Else” is a frighteningly jealous and controlling song once you crack its power pop exterior, but it’s a bit unnerving because pretty much any guy can relate to it one way or another: who wants his girlfriend to be out laughing at some other asshole’s jokes?
These songs pick and poke at the darkest of emotions that can develop in a relationship after its spiraled out of control, and “Devotion” is the most chilling portrait in the Weezer repertoire. The solo that enters with the key change definitely sounds distressed, like the product of the confused feelings and twisted perspectives that can consume a wayward lover whole. That’s just the thing: Cuomo’s joy here is so distorted and unhealthy and we fear it because we know what it means for the poor girl Devotion. There’s a brilliantly nuanced irony in the second verse, as well: Cuomo damns Perfection for “being untrue” and having “her own concerns,” when Cuomo did the exact same thing to the girl he’s running back to now. When Cuomo qualifies all his complaints about Perfection with an admiring “unlike you,” he might as well be singing “like me.”
I think there’s a special significance to the chorus line, “Devotion / Waiting for me” — perhaps an intentional tie-in to another Pinkerton contender/b-side, “Waiting On You,” a song that expresses Cuomo’s frustration over a girl who leaves him high and dry while looking for someone else (her own idea of Perfection). When these songs were in consideration for being on the same album (both songs originated during the Songs From The Black Hole concept), it’s possible that Cuomo was trying to make a point between the two songs — that the kind of pain he experiences in “Waiting On You” is the same kind of pain he makes Devotion endure, the girl that was Waiting On Him. Either way, it’s a neat connection that further deepens the emotions in each song.
This song was, to my knowledge, never properly played live, although a couple super-lucky fans reported hearing it at soundchecks during the Pinkerton tour. However, the song was performed at the Fingerprints Hootenanny jam with Cuomo and a roomful of jamming fans, and was one of the six songs to make it onto the EP snapshot of the evening, Not Alone. Listening to the performance elicits a reaction about as complex as the song’s lyrical subtleties themselves: on the one hand, the stripped down arrangement of “Devotion” bedded on fingersnaps and a brite-lite omnichord is immediately entrancing, and practically overflows with potential. Unfortunately, Cuomo’s lead vocal is shaky and tentative — being in the room as it happened must have been something magical, but in CD mastered sound, the flubbed notes and flaws are hard to miss. But that girl’s backing harmony is a pretty sweet touch, and it’s easy to appreciate the performance for what it is. Cuomo probably hadn’t thought of the song in at least a decade, and just to see this song getting an official live release in 2009 is something of a miracle in and of itself.