Much like my discovery of The Strokes’ excellent The New Abnormal album last year, an extremely quiet week in terms of sales numbers likely catapults another album I typically would have avoided a formal review of onto my end of year list. I’ll admit to not following legendary rock outfit Weezer’s entire career as closely as I often like to have done when approaching an artist’s new body of work, but based on the singles I’ve heard over the past decade, OK Human is a stunning creative leap forward. Mainly composed during quarantine while their pre-planned heavier project, Van Weezer, was shelved due to the pandemic, the album sees the band recruit a 38-piece orchestra to underscore the band’s usual giddy melodies with an added degree of grandiosity and baroque-pop charm as frontman Rivers Cuomo takes aim at some all-too-familiar topics. Many of these tracks see his trademark sincere yet goofy attitude applied in an entirely different way, complaining and joking about the isolation and lingering feeling of dread brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic but harbouring some serious and often extremely touching feelings underneath. Take it this way – I never thought a Weezer song would make me cry, but here we are.
The opening track “All My Favourite Songs” is easily the most straightforward, radio-ready and typical track to the rest of Weezer’s discography here, but it provides a great introduction easing the listener into what is to come with its orchestral embellishments and negative tinge to Cuomo’s blunt and simple lyricism. Opening with some crackling, muted flutes and the tinkling keys of what sounds like some kind of xylophone, you could easily mistake it for a children’s nursery rhyme before the strings roll in, filling in the role of the power chords with some powerful and percussive stabs as they do for most of the duration of the album. Cuomo’s vocals are as compelling as ever with their imperfect, everyman quality as he finds himself gravitating to negative energy and questioning his sanity with the kind of dopey campfire-singalong earworm of a hook that only Weezer can pull off. As the string textures swell and fill out each time Cuomo sings the chorus, it sends the listener on a brief but emotionally fulfilling journey through the complicated feelings of coping with a global pandemic. Strangely enough, the next track “Aloo Gobi” was actually written back in 2017, but carries an added degree of meaning now. In fact, Cuomo has stated that he included it mostly for ironic purposes. On the song, he complains about getting lost in routines and life losing its lustre – but of course, these routines included going out for food, seeing movies, and the like. Now, he finds himself lost in even less fulfilling cycles and wishing to go back, the sense of disenchantment the track originally echoed ringing even louder. Cuomo’s exasperated vocals combined with a driving drumbeat and the almost delightfully incongruent happiness of the peppy orchestra make for one of the most immediately catchy and memorable tracks here. The toy piano solo and tonal shift of a bridge playing with major and minor keys make it a daring creative leap above typical Weezer fare as well.
The tracks only get even more highly topical from there, even taking the most mundane of activities and elevating them to the arena-rock ambitions of a Weezer track. “Grapes of Wrath” is a strong contender for the best song here, despite the entire track being about Cuomo’s recently discovered affinity for zoning out and listening to audiobooks while cooped up in his house. In a move that once again could only be attributed to one of the first out-and-proud nerds in pop culture, the band’s confident, driving strut of an instrumental and Cuomo’s vocal swagger infuses the activity with a hilarious degree of coolness that it most decidedly doesn’t have, but it’s about all we’ve got right now. The inspired melody of the chorus and the moment of silence before it drops in is a truly electrifying moment, backing vocals and strings roaring in to simultaneously legitimize it and make it all the more ridiculous. Despite perhaps overshooting the bounds of relatability with a lyric about not showering for three weeks, the track “Playing My Piano” is the kind of Queen-style experimental track that shifts through tempos as Cuomo once again finds escapism in another activity, his plunking away on the keys suddenly getting him swept up in emotion and creativity. The orchestra behind him, and of course, the piano keys in the forefront of the mix, speed up and get increasingly virtuosic each time Cuomo passionately belts out the hook. The minute-long coda “Mirror Image” is just as stirring, a brief dedication to his wife’s support that reaches the album’s most rapturous and shimmering instrumental heights before what sounds like a stripped-back recording of Cuomo endlessly revising a deeply sad lyric at the very same piano. “Screens,” as well, is the kind of track that could easily have been reduced to the mundanity of a 50-year-old man complaining about technology, but takes on a whole new meaning. Over a powerful rock bassline adapted to bass notes on a piano and some excellent drum fills, Cuomo sings about the loss of humanity and terror of so suddenly being thrust into the 100% technology-driven world we all knew was looming in the distance, living our lives on a Zoom call.
For all the delightful Weezer campiness here, when Cuomo dials the jokes back a little, we get some incredibly beautiful and touching moments offering more of a look than ever into his soul. Having someone who has frequently been open about just how much of a normal, weird guy he is offering these deep and existential thoughts that we’ve all had at one point or another is a strangely comforting experience, a celebrity yet still in many ways an equal peer going through the same things we are. It’s the exact opposite of that Gal Gadot-led “Imagine” video that dropped at the start of all this mess. The track “Numbers” is one of the least COVID-specific here, but Cuomo’s vulnerable falsetto and the somber mood of the track carry some serious emotional weight regardless. Singing about getting caught up in quantifying human value, Cuomo states that stressing about numbers, whether it’s your Instagram likes, IQ, net worth or even your height, will kill you if you let it. The swelling strings are at their peak here, painting a sonically rich and emotionally overwhelming world as Cuomo tearfully offers a shoulder to cry on in the chorus. The track “Bird with A Broken Wing” genuinely had me tearing up as Cuomo offers the most poignant musical pandemic metaphor yet. Over a steadily oscillating and contemplative string passage, Cuomo reflects on his time soaring through the air before being relegated to the ground, forced to deal with his newfound lifestyle by rejoicing in the one thing he still has left – his creative outlets, expressed here by comparing it to birdsong. The accompanying melody is just as beautiful, a bittersweet accepting of fate. The track “Dead Roses” is another short one where Cuomo gets surprisingly poetic, the melody almost reminiscent of medieval music interspersed by a weeping minor-key syncopated guitar loop as he once again touches on imagery of being locked in a dungeon.
The album concludes with a one-two punch of its happiest and most hopeless songs. The track “Here Comes The Rain,” of course, feels almost ironic in delivering that happiness, however. With an intentionally obnoxious upbeat tempo and cheery lyrics about troubles being washed away, Weezer have crafted a power pop anthem that is perfect to either skip down the street with joy to or sarcastically reflect on how unfortunate it is that happiness can only be found through the simplest joys in this time, indulging in them to a degree that makes you feel a little absurd. The closer “La Brea Tar Pits” offers a prehistoric twist on Cuomo contemplating his own mortality, leaving the listener with an image of him pleading to be saved, sinking in the tar pits alongside the dinosaurs and mastodons as the world evolves past the use for him. Although the song itself is likely the least memorable tune here from a musical standpoint, choosing to close the album by halfheartedly playing the first three notes of “Undone – The Sweater Song,” Weezer’s first big hit, on a song wondering if there is still any demand for his new output is a genius touch.
Evidently, even after a decade of inconsistent reviews Cuomo has nothing to worry about in terms of the creative well running dry. Even if the numbers don’t follow, he said it himself earlier in the album – OK Human shows that his pandemic-inspired creative pursuits far outweigh them as an achievement. Hearing a band as silly as Weezer take on a project like this one provides an unexpected heaping of emotional weight to the listen, and it’s a comfort we all need right now a year into this madness.
Favourite Tracks: Grapes Of Wrath, Aloo Gobi, Bird With A Broken Wing, Numbers, Screens
Least Favourite Track: La Brea Tar Pits