Looking back at it a quarter-century later, it’s pretty clear that 1994 was an absolute watershed year for alternative rock. The list of iconic artsits who released classic albums that year is almost too long to list in one comma-separated sentence, but includes Soundgarden, Hole, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Oasis, Blur, Jeff Buckley, Green Day, Liz Phair, Beck, The Offspring, Tori Amos, Pavement and countless other acts then considered among the best and brightest of their era.
Yet flash forward to 2019, and the act that still carries the most commercial weight and cultural currency is one few would’ve guessed at the time: the power-pop cornball tunesmiths of Weezer. With the release of their ’94 self-titled debut (commonly called “The Blue Album” for its sky-colored cover), Weezer became sensations of MTV’s Buzz Bin, purveyors of post-grunge bangers that mixed So-Cal sunshine with in-the-garage moping, with catchy melodies and even catchier music videos. But critical response was mixed, 1996 sophomore album Pinkerton flopped commercially, and the band — led by the increasingly enigmatic Rivers Cuomo — was little heard from for the rest of the century.
Turns out, it’d be the longest the band would be out of the spotlight for the next 20 years. A revitalized (and suddenly much-namechecked) Weezer returned in 2001 with a successful self-titled comeback album (dubbed “The Green Album” in what would become a reliable pattern of color-branded LPs), and though their commercial fortunes have gently waxed and waned with each release since, the band has remained an alternative radio fixture, and cultivated a massive and devoted fanbase that seems to completely regenerate every five years. And last year, they followed a fan meme down the rabbit hole and ended up with their biggest hit in a decade: a faithful rendition of Toto’s Hot 100-topping 1982 smash “Africa.” That cover now also provides the impetus for their latest effort, out this week: a surprise covers album (heretofore known as “The Teal Album”), which serves as an inspired stopgap effort from a band that knows how to keep its fans engaged in 2019 as well as any group half their age.
Outside of the album’s unexpected appearance on a Wendnesday at midnight, not much is surprising about The Teal Album. If you expected the group to either use a covers album as an opportunity to shine a light on either obscure early influences or current contemporary favorites — or to reinvent old classics in new and revelatory ways — well, you probably haven’t been paying a ton of attention to recent Weezer. The album instead takes its lead from “Africa,” presenting a series of 10 dutiful, proficient covers of beloved pop songs that rarely color outside the lines. It’s fun but unmistakably frivolous; no new depths are plumbed, no new quirks are uncovered, and no real chances are taken — a thrash through Black Sabbath’s metal standard “Paranoid” (led by guitarist Brian Bell) registers as the closest thing to a left turn, a token nod to the band’s early days as headbangers. Artistically, there’s not a lot about The Teal Album that’s all that admirable, but if you wanted to hear what “Take on Me” or “Mr. Blue Sky” or “Billie Jean” would sound like as Weezer songs, now you know.
From a promotional perspective, though, The Teal Album will certainly go down as one of 2019’s smartest releases. It’s not the sort of release that can really sustain more than a day or two’s worth of legitimate interest, so the band took the modern approach to its rollout, dropping it from the skies without warning overnight on Wednesday, securing 24 hours’ worth of attention before the normal slate of previously scheduled albums are unleashed this Friday. It has the one slightly novel cover choice (TLC’s “No Scrubs”) to ensnare social media — pissing off the band’s old-school fans and delighting their millennial disciples — and comes close enough to the peak in popularity of their “Africa” to re-engage debate over the worthiness of that cover, and by extension, this entire project. It might even give alternative radio programmers a couple new tracks to try out in rotation and see if they can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice with the same formula.
In all likelihood, though, the buzz around The Teal Album will be extremely short-lived, and even devoted fans will probably just give it a couple listens before saving a favorite or two for future playlists and moving on with their lives. But that’s fine for Weezer, since this album isn’t even their primary release of the first quarter: That’d be their “Black Album,” which Rivers and Co. have been teasing for well over a year and which is finally due on March 1. Two songs from the album have been released already as advance tracks, but neither has quite caught on as well as “Africa” yet, so the band would seem to be hedging their bets a little with this release. Regardless, The Teal Album is a best-of-both-worlds proposition for Weezer: it reminds fans of (and expands upon) their biggest hit in recent years, while also essentially clearing the decks for their next album. In fact, the set is only available for purchase on the band’s website as part of a bundle with The Black Album, reinforcing the notion that the former primarily exists in support of the latter.
It’d be easy, and perhaps not entirely unfair, to wish that Weezer had pushed themselves a little more on The Teal Album. But that’d mostly be missing the point: This wasn’t a set meant to challenge and enlighten, and its creators likely didn’t spend all that much longer devising it than you ultimately will singing along to it. Weezer in 2019 are crowd-pleasers first and foremost, actively steadfast in giving the people what they want, and given the pure fan-service origins of their “Africa,” this album couldn’t be a much more logical extension of that.
Call it empty or even cynical if you want, but acknowledge that you don’t get to be a 25-year-old band that headlines Madison Square Garden, that gets slotted next to Kid Cudi and Billie Eillish on the Coachella poster, or that finds its fandom at the center of an entire SNL skit by being too proud to pander. Weezer are the rare ’90s band willing to do what it takes to stay relevant in the late ’10s, and while they continue to receive their fair share of Internet snark for it, guaranteed that there are a half-dozen bands of their era watching them trend on Twitter today for The Teal Album and going, “Why didn’t we think of that?”