Whereas Cuomo boasted on the Rivers Correspondence Board of “world domination” and the “millions of new fans” that would be replacing his current ones after 2001’s triumphant return, Maladroit‘s immediate failure quickly cut at the heels of Cuomo’s engorged ego and the band’s renewed confidence. While sessions for Weezer’s fifth outing had begun a couple of months before the fourth one’s release, the inability of “Dope Nose” and “Keep Fishin'” to make any more of an impact than modest chartings in U.S. Modern Rock stopped the sessions in their tracks. Word of Album Five’s quick arrival were soon silenced.
That silence sustained over the next couple of years, until word began to spread that Weezer was working with producer Rick Rubin. For the third time in a row, Weezer released an album in the second week of May, this time in 2005. After three long, unexpected years of waiting, Make Believe had finally arrived.
I thought about introducing this album with “Beverly Hills,” the first single (and sampling) of the record that the fans could hear, but ultimately, I think “Haunt You Every Day” is a better metaphor for Make Believe as a whole. It was born out of a song experiment wherein Rubin told Cuomo to write a song “like Elton John or Billy Joel,” which Cuomo says failed, but did get him to write his first song written on the piano (one wonders if that means “Longtime Sunshine” and “I Do” were written on guitar then transferred to piano, or if Cuomo was simply forgetting/disregarding those songs…I would think the latter).
From a songwriting perspective, it’s one of the better songs the band has come up with in the new millennium. Musically, it’s a melancholy melange of heavy-hearted piano chords and an eerie guitar lead, which explodes in the chorus (classic quiet/loud structure), amid a tortured, yearning guitar groan and some surprisingly nice counterpoint in Brian Bell’s backing vocal. The guitar solo even sounds like something that could have fit on Pinkerton, if not just a bit dog-leashed, as does the second guitar solo with Cuomo’s vocal scatting on the outro (reminds me a little bit of how Matt Sharp sang along to the solo of “El Scorcho,” albeit in a much darker context). The lyrics are filled with some pretty painful cliches and easy rhymes (“I don’t feel the joy / I don’t feel the pain / You were just a toy / I am just insane”), but Cuomo’s heartfelt inflection (present on Make Believe, for the first time on a Weezer record since ’96) and some nice imagery make it passable.
Still, something is terribly, terribly off here – the production. The mix. The sound of it. It’s as though one were applying Green production to Pinkerton songs (well, not Pinkerton per se). In fact, Make Believe is even more polished and shiny than Green — it’s sterile. Precious little life can be found within these tracks, so airtight and mechanical that it sounds like the work of studio androids. And for the first time in three records, one can say that Cuomo can’t be entirely blamed for this failing: this time, it’s the production that really sucks the life out of the songs. With Green and Maladroit, the songs had hardly any soul to begin with; here, whatever soul there was once has been thoroughly ironed out.
Which is not to say that all songs on Make Believe are, from a songwriting perspective, as pretty darn good as “Haunt You Every Day.” But, from best to worst, with this album, everything is just slightly off, for one reason or another. Most of the time, that reason concerns production.
Starting with Pinkerton, Weezer has always, in time, regretted the album they made. With that one, Rivers felt it was too personal, akin to getting drunk, having a cathartic moment of self-revelation at a party, then waking up the following morning and realizing how badly you embarrassed yourself (his words, not mine). With Green, the band would fess up to the production being too glossy and the songs being underdeveloped. Around the time of Make Believe‘s release, a typically diplomatic Bell admitted that on Maladroit, “the band’s tight, and we’re playing riffs. It [could] have been an album of that. Instead, I’m a bit confused when I hear it…I like some of the material on it, but the sound of it doesn’t do much for me.” And by the time of The Red Album, bassist Scott Shriner would explain Make Believe as simply having been “where our heads were at at the time.”
Interestingly enough, in a press release shortly after Make Believe‘s release, Bell was already saying that he wished they could re-record this song to be more like the way they played it on subsequent tours. A perusal of the few versions available at Weerez don’t seem to reveal any particular difference, however. Perhaps he was chalking it up to the production, too.