The California four-piece have been synonymous with intellectual insecurities buried between four-chord hooks ever since they burst onto the scene in 1994; in the bespectacled Rivers Cuomo, they have a singer-songwriter who gave superstardom the slip to study at Harvard. Their heart-on-sleeve recast of seventies-stacked power-pop rewrote the rulebook for the alt-music scene, uniting misfits and the mainstream along the way; at Leeds’s O2 Academy on their first UK tour since 2005, their spilt-gut confessionals and ridiculously catchy melodies are still universal in nature, exhilarating in execution.
There’s a studious quality to Cuomo, owlish and mildly neurotic in manner and lyricism respectively. He certainly cuts the image of a perpetual outsider, a bookish poet of teenage anxieties wrapped in a cardigan behind the microphone; but after a quarter-century in the game, his frontman credentials are impeccably backed up with an understated self-assurance.
On No One Else, a rare fan-favourite blast of writ-large fuzz-punk, he imbues his obsessions with both sardonic confidence and searching unease; on the jangle-thrash of My Name is Jonas, his anxious, plaintive roars are almost as bludgeoningly visceral as the six-string solos he hammers out alongside. When he turns from angst-ridden nuggets to the breezy Phil Spector-tinted summer melancholia of recent fare, he captivates with wistful longing instead, his voice a yearning siren-song amongst the yelping and shredding.
What makes the group’s soliloquies to teenage introspection so damn enjoyable live is that wry humour and fleet-of-foot touch. A winkingly-knowing cover of Outkast’s Hey Ya! aside, there’s a mischievousness to the way Cuomo unfurls his quasi-metal falsetto over the crunching Hash Pipe or how the band play off the irony of arena glam-cock singalong Beverly Hills whilst sporting a grin and massive sombrero. They’re a tighter, sharper outfit now than they’ve ever been, accomplished performers with a twinkle in their eye; they’re as at home with the glossy Feels Like Summer as they are with the scuzzy catharsis of Say It Ain’t So.
When they return for a single-song encore – the irresistibly effervescent Buddy Holly, still an untouchable air-punch gem decades later – red and white ticker-tape explodes over the crowd during its thrilling crescendo in true carnival fashion. Under streams of paper, Cuomo holds his guitar aloft; the lone semi-ironic concession to rockstar vernacular from a group whose outcast charm remains wonderfully endearing.