As a Rolling Stone cover story on newsstands the week before the release of Make Believe made clear, Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo is an odd, ornery sort. He's a genuine rock & roll maverick, at once attracted and repelled by his star status, disappearing for long stretches at a time, often to return to college. He writes and records far more songs than whatever winds up on a final Weezer record, which are often whittled down to just 30 or 40 minutes, leaving untold numbers of songs in the vaults. What makes the situation even stranger is for as obstinate and unpredictable as he is, Cuomo does not make odd music: he's a pop songwriter fronting a hard rock band, equally enamored with big choruses and loud guitars. While each of Weezer's records has a defining characteristic -- whether it's a sound, a lyrical theme, or simply an emotional feel -- that separates it from its predecessor, each album is clearly written from the same perspective: that of a brainy misfit raised on cheap metal and new wave, whose nerdiness always kept him on the outside looking in. This was true even after Cuomo became a star, thanks in large part to how he had a gift for articulating how very awkward he felt within the constructs of a catchy, melodic, concise pop song. But as rock stars since Elvis have learned, fans are a demanding lot, especially when they identify so heavily with a specific work, as Weezer's cult did with Pinkerton, the band's second album. It flopped upon its 1996 release but became a word-of-mouth hit over the next five years, leading up to their eagerly awaited comeback, Weezer, their second eponymous album that is otherwise known as The Green Album. Appropriately for a self-titled affair, Weezer functioned as an introduction to a new incarnation of a band, one that sounded similar but had a different outlook: namely, one that was deliberately notintrospective, a conscious shift away from plaintive introspection of Pinkerton. The Green Album and its quickly released 2002 follow-up, Maladroit, were both sharply written, tightly constructed, quite excellent, and popular rock records, but that didn't stop some fans from grumbling that neither album was as affecting as Pinkerton.
Those same fans will likely not be happy with Cuomo's return to musical, emotional bloodletting with 2005's Make Believe. It may be a spiritual cousin to Pinkerton, yet it's far removed from the raw, nervy immediacy of that album. Nearly ten years separate the two records, a long time by any measure, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Cuomo has a far different emotional outlook here. On Make Believe he purposely avoids the pain and torture of Pinkerton, where the guitars exploded and scraped, complementing the torment in his lyrics. Here, Cuomo is trying to sort things out, sometimes beating himself up over past mistakes, sometimes looking at his surroundings sardonically, but something separates Make Believe from previous Weezer albums: a palpable sense of optimism, a feeling of hope, a new positivity. That's not really what the legions of Pinkerton fans are looking for. They're likely going to find some of his lyrics perilously close to a self-help manual, particularly when Cuomo writes a sappy ode to his best friend -- and it's pretty much a given that they won't respond to Rick Rubin's sleek, layered, propulsive production, which makes Weezer sound far more new wave than Ric Ocasek ever did. (Rubin also keeps the band far away from the pseudo-new wave of the Killers and the Bravery, which is why he's a highly paid pro.) But let those fans pine for the past, because the very things that they'll find irritating about Make Believe are what make it yet another first-rate Weezer record. Part of the band's appeal is that Cuomo not only skirts the edge of embarrassment, he frequently passes far beyond it, and while that very trait is irritating in the hands of lesser-talented emo bands, in Rivers, it's quite ingratiating and endearing because he has the musical skills to back up his self-analysis. He never overwrites, either in his words or melodies, his songs are carefully, precisely crafted pop, and his love of metal and rock gives his music muscle and balls. These gifts are as evident on Make Believe as they had been on every other Weezer record -- the only difference is this has a lighter, brighter feel than any of its predecessors, not just in the music but in its outlook. It might not be what Weezer fans want, but as that aforementioned Rolling Stone article made clear, Cuomo never cared much about that in the first place. If they're not immediately taken with Make Believe, give it time. After all, Pinkerton didn't win fans immediately.