Over the course of 25+ years and 13 studio albums, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo has reliably chronicled life’s ups and downs by navigating the fine line between ironic detachment and ultra-earnest confessionals. On the heels of two different self-titled releases in 2019, he and his bandmates were eyeing two more new albums for release in 2020 until COVID threw a wrench in those plans (and most other plans as well). The ‘80s metal homage “Van Weezer” was thus put on the back-burner (it’s now due out on May 7), and a very different type of album has emerged first: the humorously titled “OK Human” — for better or worse, the Radiohead “OK Computer” reference is limited to the title — which paints a vivid portrait of Cuomo’s life during the pandemic.
But there’s a twist: Rather than set these tales to Weezer’s trademark shiny guitar riffs, Cuomo, clearly inspired by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, enlisted a 38-piece orchestra, which essentially fills the musical role usually played by rhythm guitars. Thankfully, this is not the square peg/round hole disaster it could have been. Instead, “OK Human” is another solid Weezer album that just so happens to have, um, bassoons, trumpets and violas on every song.
Throughout, “OK Human” navigates the COVID-widened space between “OK Boomer”-style complaints (the uncomfortable chair at the art house cinema in “Aloo Gobi”) and “OK Computer”-style “technology will destroy us all” ruminations (the kid who spends all day watching Blackpink videos in “Mirror Image”). Acknowledging the constant noise that surrounds us, bouncy opener and first single “All My Favorite Songs” sums it all up nicely, as Cuomo laments, “Sometimes I wish I was on an island/ But then I’d miss the sound of sirens.”
Perpetually the bespectacled, underdog rock nerd, Cuomo at age 50 appears to have spent the past year in ways that will surely resonate with Weezer’s legion of fans: glumly picking through his takeout dinners, binge-“reading” fiction classics on Audible, hiding from his family in the basement and bemoaning how electronic devices have overtaken the lives of everyone around him. For the most part, his day-to-day existence seems as humdrum as the flavorless chai he drinks.
At its most morose, “OK Human” traffics in dungeon imagery (“Dead Roses,” featuring a rare usage of the word “oubliette” in a rock song) and healthy doses of middle-aged self-deprecation (“Here Comes the Rain,” in which Cuomo resigns himself to having become “just another punk that bit the dust”). There’s even a LaBrea Tar Pits simile to illustrate how trapped in a rut he feels.
Luckily, the added instrumentation is rarely overpowering and the Rob Mathes-penned arrangements are consistently interesting. Perhaps the best example is “Numbers,” a genuinely pretty and affecting song in which the strings enhance Cuomo’s heartfelt “I’ll be there for you when you’re down” entreaties. We can even forgive the unabashed Brian Wilson-in-the-sandbox motifs of “Playing My Piano,” which shifts from orchestral melodrama to a straight-up “Heroes and Villains” rip. You’ve got to admire this snapshot of single-minded musical focus, which Cuomo says couldn’t even be disturbed by Kim Jong-un blowing up Los Angeles.
Indeed, if there’s one thing we’ve learned since “The Blue Album” dropped back in ’94, it will take more than ruthless dictators — or even an orchestra — to extinguish Weezer’s way with a hook.