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Too Late To Try

Written dead in the midst of the Summer Songs 2000 period, this was one of the lucky Rivers Cuomo compositions from the 150-odd he wrote that year to make it into the band’s comeback tour setlists — and the subsequent semi-official live MP3 album released to commemorate these songs. (Only three of the fourteen ever saw eventual release on studio albums.)

We have a few versions of this song, the definitive being the official live SS2K cut, from which Karl Koch trimmed a post-chorus under direction from Cuomo. It begins with a guitar tone unlike any other in the Weezer catalogue (any help, guitarists?), which sounds like a rather repetitive (one-chord?) riff that’s being modulated by a pedal effect — which seems to get, of all things, a kind of cheesy pop-punk effect. It’s a pretty cool contrast, though, when Cuomo cuts above the distorted sludge with a winning vocal melody that’s clear as a bell: “I don’t wanna die / Even if I have to / I just want to live a long long time.”

Pat Wilson counts off and the band surges into the fray all together, and from there “Too Late To Try” becomes the most autobiographical and self-referential song the band had ever performed (until “Heart Songs” came along) — it’s a Weezer song about being in Weezer. As goes the chorus: “I see the game to which I belong / Time to sing our happy songs / Wouldn’t it be a cruel joke if it’s too late to try?” From at least a historical perspective, it’s the quintessential SS2K anthem, wherein Cuomo realizes that this band is his calling, dusts off his Buddy Holly spex and gets in the van.

Like most tunes of the era, though, there’s a certain angst and bitterness about the whole affair: this thing is a “game” to him, and that’s the kind of thinking that’s a little more in line with the Cuomo of the Pinkerton era, the one who wanted to give up rock’n’roll by his thirties to become a classical composer. Isn’t it a cruel irony, then, that Pinkerton — his most ambitious and ingeniously composed work — was a commercial disaster, that his studies of classical composition at Harvard left him feeling unfulfilled (or perhaps just terrified), and here he is, four years later, touring clubs and trying his damnedest to write “the perfect pop song?” That sounds like something of a trifling to someone who was dreaming of conservatories not long ago, and these “happy songs” Cuomo has written and come to sing are not only actually self-deprecating in nature —  Cuomo’s now self-deprecating about *singing* them, even. This is coming from the same side of Cuomo that arrogantly “tells the world to fuck itself” in another SS2K staple, “My Brain.”

The second verse echoes this sentiment with perfect teenage inelegance: “I don’t wanna grow / Even if it’s good growth / I just want to stay just like this.” The Cuomo who, in a 1997 interview, predicted a darker and more experimental turn in Weezer’s future output is long dead, replaced by an aging young man who has resigned himself to the pop music pursuits of the kind of song he’s now singing this very moment. Forget creative development, “even if it’s good growth” — a sad and prophetic sentiment from a man who, a decade after this song, would team up with radio pop songwriters in an attempt to appeal to a demographic roughly 1/3 the age of any given member of his band.

There’s that anxiety that’s so typical of the era, too: what if it’s “too late to try?” Maybe Weezer’s moment passed with the mid-’90s, when Cuomo already enjoyed mass commercial success with The Blue Album. I recently posited that commercial validation was once an important but very secondary concern for Cuomo as a songwriter, and that even he was surprised by how much a lack of that validation stung when Pinkerton bombed — and from there, it became something of an obsession that went on to trump all other aspects and considerations of his craft. The anxiety and regression from that pain is very palpable in this song, itself a rather neatly packaged and concise pop tune (albeit, perhaps even better for the purposes of this song, one that could never be a hit). “I see a comfortable place to rest / Time to get this shit off my chest!”

And look! An early prototype for the play-it-safe verse melody guitar solo that would come to be a hallmark for the FM radio love letter that is The Green Album. Indeed, this was all part of a greater process of creative simplification and streamlining that would soon provide Cuomo at least a taste of the success for which he longed.

I quite like the outro: over that same intro riff and a wash of nasty feedback, Cuomo and Mikey Welsh harmonize the title lyric while Brian Bell echoes it as a simple counterpoint. With a little more development, this could have turned into a cool round-robin arrangement, a bit along the lines of the breakdown in “Surf Wax America.” But then again, it’s exactly that kind of base-level creativity and development from which Cuomo was trying to recede.

A note on alternate versions: There’s an “unofficial” live bootleg of this song floating around that finds the band playing it a few BPM slower (they were wise to release the fast one), an “unedited” version of the official take that doesn’t omit that first post-chorus (wonder how that one surfaced), and an in-studio demo that also seems to be a bit slower than it ought to be. The production values are no better than the live take, though, and Cuomo’s vocals are actually shakier, so it’s not a particularly worthwhile listen.