American alt-rock heroes Weezer‘s second album, the 1996 effort Pinkerton, is a thing of dark beauty. Containing all the catchy power-pop anthems that their debut, the Blue Album, had but this time instilling them with darker lyrical themes and a more abrasive writing and production style. As a result, Pinkerton has developed a cult classic status over the years.
Although the Blue Album certainly contained many indications of frontman Rivers Cuomo’s strange and slightly unnerving lyrical content, Pinkerton slapped you right in the face with it. An introspective and autumnal record, the majority of the tracks were penned when Cuomo was away studying at Harvard University, far away from his band, friends and family.
Not only dealing with isolation and depression, but Cuomo’s lyrics were also primarily concerned with his disillusionment with fame and what he saw as the futility of rockstardom. In this trail of thought, the album is named after the character B. F. Pinkerton from Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly, an opera that Cuomo listened to extensively whilst touring the Blue Album. The character Pinkerton was someone Cuomo described as an “asshole American sailor similar to a touring rock star”.
Interestingly, the basic ideas for Pinkerton were germinated when the band were writing and planning their rock opera Songs from the Black Hole, which was eventually abandoned in favour of writing an entirely new set of songs that became the album. It took on the darker mood, informed by both Cuomo’s experiences with fame and at university. One thematic similarity the album contains to the abandoned rock opera is its numerous references to Japanese culture, something that Cuomo had always been fascinated with.
To understand Cuomo’s ideation properly, we have to take into account that Weezer’s debut was a massive success and was certified platinum under a year after its release. Retrospectively the frontman explained that the success “stirred up a lot of mixed feelings in me – ‘Yay, I’m happy’ as well as ‘I’m not sure this is the life I want to lead'”.
His application to Harvard displays his thoughts as clear as day: “Fans ask me all the time what it is like to be a rock star. I can tell that they are dreaming, as I dreamed, when I was a kid, of someday ruling the world with a rock band. I tell them the same thing I would tell any young rock-star-to-be… You will get lonely.”
It continued: “You will meet two hundred people every night, but each conversation will generally last approximately thirty seconds, and consist of you trying to convince them that no, you do not want their underwear. Then you will be alone again, in your motel room. Or you will be on your bus, in your little space, trying to kill the nine hours it takes to get to the next city, whichever city it is. This is the life of a rock star.”
It is also critical to note that over the album’s writing and recording process, Cuomo had undergone surgery to lengthen his right leg, something that had been short since childbirth. After this major surgery, he was in a great deal of physical pain and, coupled with the strange effects of the painkillers that he was taking to combat it, produced a record of polar opposites.
Another notion that permeates the album is the inferiority complex Cuomo was discovering about himself and the music that he had developed since the band’s 1994 debut. After experiencing all the trappings of fame and success, Cuomo said he felt his songs were “simplistic and silly” and that instead, he wanted to write “complex, intense, beautiful” music. This would shine through way more cerebral than their debut, and it comes as no surprise that Pinkerton is so widely loved. Not only was it the last record to feature the band’s best and original bassist, Matt Sharp, it also managed to build on the brilliance of their debut whilst doing something fresh with its blueprint. Ironically though, upon release, the album was not a success and received mixed reviews across the board, and was shadowed in sales by the spectre of its predecessor. It is only in the years after its release, owing in part to some of the quite frankly terrible records Weezer released in the ’00s, that a revisionist perspective on the record has been cultivated.
A favourite on internet forums everywhere, these days it is regarded as being better than Weezer, which remains a contentious point between fans globally. It was certified platinum 2016 and is, at the time of writing, is even hailed as one of the best albums ever written. Isn’t it strange how sometimes all a record needs is time to show its true beauty?
Deciding against using a producer, the album is one that can be best described as pure, unadulterated Weezer, an explicit exploration of Cuomo and the band’s “dark side” – you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad track. Over its brief 34-minute duration, Pinkerton sonically embodies the confusion of early adulthood. A tempestuous affair, angry yet mellow, self-effacing but also petulant, when taken in the context of the mid-1990s, the album can be hailed as a sonic dive into how Generation X struggled with themselves, owing to years of brushing feelings under the carpet. Dysfunctional, sexual and confused, it has an essence we can all somewhat understand.
Encompassing emo and lo-fi, it is similar to its predecessor in the way that it is all highlights. The dark and noisy opener ‘Tired of Sex’ is one of the best in Weezer’s extensive back catalogue, featuring the iconic, droning synth that pops up at points across the record. As the inception, it is also a statement of intent from Weezer, telling their fans that from now on, they would be experimenting with different instrumentation.
‘Getchoo’, ‘No Other One’, ‘Why Bother?’, ‘Across the Sea’, ‘The Good Life’, ‘El Scorcho’, ‘Pink Triangle’, ‘Falling for You’ and ‘Butterfly’, every track is exceptional and each helps in its own way to build this emotional hurricane. ‘Across the Sea’ is a particular standout, a yearning yet anthemic ode to love lost and love found. Another personal favourite is the melodic bridge in ‘The Good Life’ where guitarist Brian Bell’s sliding guitar dovetails with the xylophone sounding like the melancholy falling of leaves on an autumns day. Like the adolescent feel of heartbreak we all know too well, this always hits you right in the feels.
Each track exhibits what Weezer does best, providing a sing-along that is stirring yet emotionally affecting. Take the visceral music of ‘Why Bother?’ for example; it cuts along at breakneck speed, sounding punk all the while discussing being left by a romantic partner. In fact, this dichotomy between the lyrics and the music is what makes the record stand out. One only had to heed the song’s chorus lyrics to note this: “Why bother?/ It’s gonna hurt me/ It’s gonna kill when you desert me/ This happened to me twice before/ It won’t happen to me anymore”.
Simply put, you can take both of Weezer’s first two records as separate sides of the same coin, often played off against each other. But when taken as a pair, like yin and yang, they complete each other. As a duo, they tell us more about the band than they would on their own. The most refined iteration of the band’s last studio outing, Pinkerton is always worth a revisit. It’ll have you laughing and crying, and that is its strange, confusing majesty. Furthermore, I think somewhere deep within us, we’re all hoping that Matt Sharp will one day return to Weezer’s fold.
Listen to Pinkerton in full below.