With emo now a worn-out MTV pop item, it’s hard to tell when people are truly putting their hearts on the line. Judging a band like Weezer — and a songwriter like Rivers Cuomo — is even harder. The band followed up two superb albums — the self-titled debut (the Blue Album) in 1994 and Pinkerton in 1996 — with two more — the Green Album in 2001 and Maladroit in 2002 — that contained scattered, sometimes great songs but were released to neutral reviews and moderate success. So expectations surrounding the band’s fifth album, Make Believe, were naturally high. Would it be another Pinkerton, an album of such intense catharsis that its critical fallout — however undeserved — sent Rivers into self-imposed seclusion? Or will it rehash the solid, polished geek-rock on which they’ve seemingly cornered the market? Never playing the expected card, Make Believe offers no answers, only suggestions. Not a step forward as much as a reassessment of priorities, it sounds as if the members of Weezer have dug into their back catalogue for Make Believe and realized their initial power: naked emotion and kick-ass guitars. Gone are the formulaic guitar solos that Cuomo and guitarist Brian Bell snored out on the Green Album; back is the band’s penchant for the distortion that powered through Pinkerton. And they finally stretch out a little more, letting the intros and solos breathe, stripping the Green polish away to find their core, which has always been Cuomo’s endearing, strikingly confessional lyrics and voice.
The good news: there’s more emotion in “Pardon Me” alone than in the entire previous two albums combined. As he screams "So I apologize to you/ And to anyone else that I hurt too," we hear Cuomo exposed, coming to terms with and reassessing the mistakes he’s made. It’s no "Say It Ain’t So," but his heart (and guitar) is in the right place. "Haunt You Every Day" finds him coming clean again, promising his own innocent vengeance. When his voice cracks and pleads on "Peace" and "This Is Such a Pity," we hear his insecurities, and we remember what it was we liked so much: he’s a real guy with a Kiss fetish and a shitload of cool vests.
Unfortunately, the unfreezing process takes time. Yes, they branch out musically — check the Police-like synthesizers on the Police-like song "This Is Such a Pity" — but they don’t go far enough, as if they’re constantly checking their pop-music stopwatches. And for the welcome moments of purging, there are too many instances of outright explanation; "I have many fears about rejection/ I have many memories of pain" is new-age self-help rhetoric. "We Are All On Drugs" and "Freak Me Out" are throwaways that wouldn’t have been included on a stronger album.
For such a notoriously prolific songwriter, much of Make Believe doesn’t cut it. It’s the schizophrenic sound of a band starting over a decade later. The promise of the album,though, is that Rivers has regained the ability to channel his vulnerability, not mask it with glossy production and sterile lyrics. Here’s hoping, for our sake, he doesn’t find the peace he’s looking for.