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The Spider

I’m often accused of hyperbole on this here songblog, and I will concede that these claims aren’t always inaccurate. But this is one grand statement I can truly stand by: “The Spider” is the most misunderstood song Weezer has ever released.

As the third of four “Deluxe version” bonus tracks for 2008’s Red Album, “The Spider” follows on the heels of “Standard” album closer “The Angel and The One,” “Miss Sweeney,” and “Pig” — a pointed string of what are arguably the best Weezer songs officially released since the ’90s, and tough company to keep for any song Rivers Cuomo has written and bothered to share this century. Many die-hard fans (and who else went for the Deluxe?) have dismissed this track as an out-and-out failure, a waste of space and something that was wisely kept off the main album. But I write today to maintain that “The Spider” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other three truly great Red-era tracks that precede it.

It begins uniquely for a Weezer song, with a lone acoustic guitar adorned by several sheets of blanketed synth drones. Sharp listeners will notice a little turn in the arpeggiating line that recalls the way the acoustic guitar from “Butterfly” reaches out for something that isn’t there. As with “Pig” before it, Cuomo’s lyric ponders mortality via personification of an inhuman living thing — in this case, the titular insect. Spiders have inspired relatively experimental Cuomo compositions before — preceding album Make Believe’s sole left fielder, “Freak Me Out,” and as-yet-unheard pre-Weezer sketch “Spiderbitch” — but “The Spider” stands out for being further evidence that The Red Album could have pretty easily been a very satisfying and mature commentary on the graying years of life. (Instead of its reality, a rather facile collection of half-realized songs and alleged “Weezer” “music” such as “Cold Dark World.”)

Following “Angel” and “Pig” — two songs that, despite their unconventional structures, retain fairly immediate and obvious intentions — it’s all too easy to characterize “The Spider’s” dense text and infinite space as being formless and unrefined. After all, both of those prior songs climax quite spectacularly, whereas “The Spider” simmers on a single verse for the vast majority of its 4:42 runtime; once the vocals enter, they only pause once, and then very briefly. They are, in their entirety before that pause:

There’s a spider in the drain and he’s feeling pain
And he doesn’t want to die any more than you or I
He’s struggling to live, but he doesn’t have much time
Any more than you or I…
We’ve got to die, we’ve got to live
We’ve got to take what we can get
We sell ourselves for petty change
And when we die, we rearrange…
It’s time to take it back again
It’s time to take it back again
I want you to love me like I love you…

Here, Cuomo is setting the template for the main thoughts and themes of this rather complicated song: the spider metaphor, the life-meets-death dialectic, and a rather obtuse dimension of love. It’s clearly directionless, but there’s a method to the madness that hasn’t yet revealed itself — again, Cuomo’s just beginning to fray things out here. It’s fantastically disorienting, and it’s disheartening to see so many mistaken that facet of the song as having been unintentional. The musical context should provide a hint for what’s going on here: those guitar meanderings and synth percolations give the song an expansive spatial sense encountered nowhere else in Weezer’s tightly-knit and often formulaic canon, and that’s no coincidence. It’s almost as if this nebulous tune is floating off in some alternate Weezer reality, or at least somewhere dark and far beyond the shallow stratosphere of their sunny and insular guitar pop world.

The break in these lyrics comes in the form of another first: a nearly single-note feedback solo that cuts gently across the synth bed before echoing violently back into silence. (Aside: The last time a guitar’s entrance has had such an effect in a Weezer song would be “I Do,” and I think it’s much more effective here.) It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to hear it as the drip of the faucet expanding into a full flow, the one that spells the spider’s imminent end. The lyrics return:

There’s nothing more for me to say
I spoke my piece; I go on my way
And fare thee well, where’er you go
You might need help, but I won’t know
‘Cause I’m up here in my own cell
It could be heaven; it could be hell
We’ll never know just who we are
Because when we die, we become a star
And stars can’t talk because they have no mouths to speak about their past
They simply shine up in the sky
And give their light to you and I…

By this point in the verse, one has invariably noticed that the volume and density of the synths has steadily risen to the point where they are actually beginning to obscure the lyrics a bit. And speaking of the lyrics, what’s going on here now? Cuomo’s clearly flailing: he says he’s got nothing left to say, then continues to ramble on — getting all Romantic-Shakespeare-Middle-English on us for a second, even — and then all this talk about heaven and hell and death and stars — which is a pretty nice little move ‘cause the song sounds cold and otherworldly enough to be sung from outerspace, as I was sort of mentioning a second ago — but what? Hell, I have to embark on a ramble just to even begin scratching the surface of Cuomo’s!

This is the moment where so many — even some of the most helplessly devout in the camp of Weezer diehards — have given up on this song. What’s he talking about? Why are those synths getting so damn loud and annoying? Fuck this, give me back my “Beverly Hills!”
Well, kids, pay close attention:

And where will we be without their light?
We call out names and then start a fight
But then again, that’s what we do
I hate me and I hate you too
‘Cause I’m in pain just like the spider
In the drain, I am afire
But I can’t win, I’ve got to lose
Give me strength to see me through
And ease the pain that I must feel
As my bones break and I taste the steel
As I go down…the drain
I’m insane

Get it? Did you see that, there?

Okay, well, to be fair, you really have to be taking the song’s lyrics in as a {whole} to understand what’s going on at each and every point in its runtime. But those paying close attention should be realizing any number of things at this point, such as:

1)   The waves of synthesizer drowning out Cuomo are meant to represent the water flow drowning the spider. It’s a clever little way of representing what’s going on in the song without making it lyrically explicit until the winding verse’s prolonged conclusion.  You’d think this would be obvious upon first listen, but perhaps Cuomo’s overestimated his audience here as he did with Pinkerton: I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ve had to explain this simple device of “The Spider” to people who have had plenty of time to contemplate it.

2)   That first realization is key to understanding a very crucial facet of this song: the lyrics are *intentionally* frantic and scatterbrained. Cuomo’s mind is all over the place because he — like a spider nervously realizing that things are starting to get a bit wet — sees the end approaching. “The end” here means a number of things: the end of a life, the end of a relationship, the end of a song — the end of a chance to communicate something to someone. That’s what this song is about, and the hurried and ineloquent way Cuomo tries to get it all out before the approaching deadline is a subtle way to reinforce that meaning. Weezer has used conversational ineloquence to great effect plenty of times before (“I’m ready, let’s do it baby!”), so this is hardly a new trick.

3)   The lyrics at first appear to have little semblance of structure or purpose, but the narrative arc here is actually rather impressive: We begin below ground with the spider in the drain, holding onto hope against hope in its final moments, and from there Cuomo takes us up to more human ground level with the talk of failing relationships, and from there up into the stars with the talk of the afterlife…and then back down to earth with the return of the failing relationship, and then deeper down with the return to the drain where the spider finally submits to his fate. No matter how you label it, the motion is pretty interesting: Death –> Life –> Afterlife –> Life –> Death, or Hell –> Earth –> Heaven –> Earth –> Hell, etc.  It’s a perfect curve, and it works far too well for anyone to tenably dismiss this song as “directionless,” as so many have tried.

I made a sidelong reference to it earlier, but something I also really enjoy about this song is the sort of Romantic, classic-lit imagery that Cuomo evokes a couple of times. There’s the “fare thee well, where’er you go” line, of course, but my favorite moment in the whole song is when Cuomo shouts, “As my bones break and I taste the steel!” — an awesome evocation of both the spider getting crushed along the contours of the drain, and the end of the relationship being like the end of an old-fashioned duel, Cuomo left gutted by the blade of his ex-lover (all figuratively, of course). So while the winding verse and melody may have otherwise bored with its only subtle variations and developments, there are more than enough moments like these to keep the listener moved and engaged: another favorite of mine is when Brian Bell doubles in with the backing vocals on “I hate me and I hate you too,” just the right moment for a little bit of dramatic harmony. A nice reminder that these two’s voices sure do go nice together…

I will admit to one substantial issue I take with this song, and that is the thudding conclusion: “I’m insane.” It’s not that it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the song — in fact, it’s a knowing acknowledgment of the rest of the lyrics’ fraught thought process — it’s just more that it’s such a predictable Cuomo cliché in a song that is otherwise entrenched in deeply novel territory for him as a writer and Weezer as a band. Maybe it’s not such an issue with other listeners (I’d be interested to hear your thoughts), but the first time I heard this song and it had me in such a spell, I heard the “down the drain” line and found myself begging Cuomo not to rhyme it with “brain” or “insane”…and of course, there it went. It’s certainly forgivable, seeing how I otherwise love this song so dearly, but it’s something I feel warrants mention.

Frankly, I’m astounded that the Rivers Cuomo of today wrote this song, and that the Weezer of today found a way to record it well and release it in some form or another. But then again, with “Angel,” “Pig” and “Sweeney” all also being released in this era, perhaps the surprise should be reserved for the fact that all but one of these songs got jilted to “bonus track” status. Other tantalizing glimpses into Cuomo’s songwriting from this period, like “I Don’t Want To Let You Go,” frustrate as much as they please: if the guy’s still so capable of writing stuff that can go toe-to-toe with the brilliant pop manna he was conjuring as a young adult, why is he so afraid to acknowledge it through a more public medium? (Say, Weezer’s actual albums?) I’m glad that we get this stuff at all (it’s why I’m still doing this thing, folks), but it makes it kind of obvious that there’s probably a bit more of it that we aren’t hearing. Those close to the band (and occasionally, in it) have suggested as much many a time.

Meanwhile, we can hope that someday we will hear all the gems and pleasant oddities left untouched in the =W= vault. Moreover, we can give Cuomo a little more credit as a songwriter, and music like “The Spider” a little more thought as songs: there’s far more than meets the eye here, and it merits should be considered, discussed, celebrated. If not, we can expect many more spontaneously hot girls and creepy daddies in our near future.