Note: The tragically mysterious Weezer story will be reiterated throughout for the uninitiated, but mainly this article is about Pinkerton.
It’s the early 90’s, and Weezer is the hottest rock band in America. Their self-titled ’94 debut is stuffed with timeless classics like “Buddy Holly”, “Undone – The Sweater Song”, and “Say It Ain’t So”. In a rock world taken with grunge, Weezer is a convincing reminder of rock music’s lasting pop appeal.
In ’96 Weezer follows that album with Pinkerton. This album trades studio glitz for rough self-production, and comparatively comes across as abrasive and uninviting. Gone are the quirky music videos, harmonica soloes, and songs about surfing. The lyrics are shockingly personal: 26-year-old songwriter and frontman Rivers Cuomo spills raw confessionals like he grabbed his teenage diary instead of the song lyrics. It doesn’t take the band long to depart from the goofy, clean-cut band that recorded Weezer.
Immediately on track 1 (“Tired of Sex”) we’re greeted by a grating synth line and a drumbeat that’s mostly a bass pedal methodically slamming. Most striking is singer Cuomo’s guttural vocals, which are frequently indistinguishable from cries of pain. Once easygoing, now he pleads for an escape from meaningless sex. The second song cements the transition into darker territory. On “Getchoo” Cuomo is downright menacing as he begs an ex to take him back. His argument stands on flimsy logic, however, and consists of acknowledging how terrible he has been to her and then asserting that she should take him back because that would make him feel better. He repeatedly yells “Getchoo (Get you)” in anguish, which is his mission: force them back together by asking repeatedly. Judging by the next song (“No Other One”) it seems to have worked, since now he’s totally devoted to his girl. Unfortunately, the girl in question has major problems with lying, jealousy, and drugs. The most telling line comes toward the end. “I don’t want to be alone” has been his repeated justification for staying with her, but then it transforms into “we don’t want to be alone”. It’s a mutual self-destruction, where they bring out the worst in each other but aren’t strong or mature enough to prefer what’s good for either of them.
Once you delve into the subject matter on Pinkerton, its no small wonder critics at the time dismiss the album as “disengaged” and “pathetic”, or “aimless” and “juvenile”. Audiences like it even less: unlike Weezer, there is no hit single, no hit music video, and sales are abysmal. As of 2014, Pinkerton has sold over four times fewer copies than the debut. Even Cuomo has trouble standing up for the album. In a rare interview he calls Pinkerton “a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away”. It seems the criticism really gets to him, since Pinkerton is the last time Weezer will ever again make music as a band.
Moving along towards the middle tracks, on “Why Bother” the potential pain from pursuing someone outweighs any upside, so Cuomo resolves to stay alone. Following is “Across the Sea”, which I absolutely have to mention since its one of the creepiest songs ever written. In it, Cuomo receives a fan letter from an 18-year-old Japanese girl and it really gets to him and his loneliness. This leads to an intimate moment alone as he longs for a sexual connection with her. Immediately after, an embarrassing childhood memory floods his mind, which combined with his current situation doesn’t help his self-esteem. He’s desperate for real human connection, and admiration from his millions of fans does a poor job filling the gap. Until “Across the Sea”, the album could at least semi-plausibly come across as hypothetical, but this story is just way too specific a snapshot into Cuomo’s melancholy. He’s using his listeners as a therapist, trusting us all with his problematic, disturbing feelings.
Contemporary criticism has been much kinder to Pinkerton than the initial reaction. The 2010 reissue scores perfectly on Metacritic, with several long-standing publications revising their stance. Despite being wildly different, the album is now oft-considered equal to or greater than Weezer. Over the past 15+ years Pinkerton has risen above cult classic and become an unqualified classic, and rightly so.
While Pinkerton doesn’t tap into any kind of populist outreach, it does tap into the minds of frustrated high school kids effectively, and that market is timeless. I’m not saying that listening to this while I’m in 10th grade in lieu of Warped Tour fodder is good for me but there is no denying its appeal. In those years, it can seem like everyone knows what they’re doing except for you so its nice to hear someone express vulnerability in a language you can understand.* The album works for new generations like it does for those aged 13-18 in 1996, since Cuomo bares his soul in a public, enduring way. The catch is that the last guy I want to be in a world where Pinkerton exists is the guy who makes it. Imagine millions of people knowing your most embarrassing moments, and tens of thousands reliving those moments every year. Quickly the embarrassment and ridicule becomes too much, which leads to the dissolution of Weezer and Cuomo’s permanent retreat from the public eye.
At this point in the album we reach “The Good Life”, which subverts a positive sounding title and Weezer-esque pop sound with comic self-deprecation. Cuomo refers to himself as many things, including an old man, pig, and a dog. This song laments the passing of the good old days, so at least Cuomo notices what we all noticed when the songwriting went from endearingly insecure to miserable in the two years between Weezer and Pinkerton. “El Scorcho” seems poised to turn things around, however. It’s another song about trying for the girl with limited success, but without the defeatism of “Why Bother”. The zany guitar lead combined with Cuomo displaying interests (dancing and punk rock) alongside his pleas makes this song the closest to fun that this album will get. Judging by the next song, however, “El Scorcho” is a trick. On “Pink Triangle” he discovers the girl he’s fallen for is a lesbian. In another narrative this turn of events is funny, but Cuomo comes across so genuinely disappointed that instead its another embarrassing failure. Closer “Butterfly” is a downcast acoustic outro that serves as Cuomo’s heartbreaking farewell to his fans, critics, and the rest of the music world.
There are many legendary musicians that we lost far too early. Suicide claimed Kurt Cobain, Elliot Smith, and Jimi Hendrix, while Nick Drake, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse overdosed. Otis Redding, Buddy Holly, and Aaliyah boarded the wrong planes, and Jeff Buckley accidentally drowned. 2pac and Biggie were shot to death. Other bands died despite members living on. The Sex Pistols only held it together for one album. The Beatles imploded before showing signs of creative decline. James Murphy felt like ending LCD Soundsystem, so he did. 90’s bands like Pixies, Slint, My Bloody Valentine, and Neutral Milk Hotel tried for a bit and did a good job, but moved on long before delayed recognition pushed them into middling reunion efforts.
Weezer is up there with the greatest losses. Cuomo never escaped the shadow of Pinkerton, both as an artistic statement and as a personal one. He revealed himself as the guy who sniffs letters from female fans and can’t handle relationships. Worse, he became the guy who let a twenty-somethings existential crisis kill a promising young rock band. The rest of his life will likely be spent in relative obscurity hiding from Pinkerton. To be honest I haven’t really followed what he’s been up to between the late 90’s and today but I like to imagine he’s out there somewhere living a quiet life, playing guitar every now and then with some old friends. Maybe he’s found a niche among people unaware of his forays into the music industry. Hopefully he’s matured beyond the teenaged mentality that stayed with him all the way through Pinkerton. This is all speculation, however, since really anything could have happened. If he went the way of Jeff Buckley and Aaliyah, as countless other anonymous faces have, very few would have even thought twice.
One can imagine a pocket elsewhere in the multiverse where Cuomo reacts to Pinkerton’s rejection differently. It’s fun to make believe about a weird alternate world where, say, Weezer releases album after album of lifeless, empty soft rock filled with cringe-worthy joke tunes. In some ways Cuomo would be happier in this world. He’d have more money, since every now and then his band would make it onto the charts with a novelty hit. They would probably have whimsical album art as well, and with each new release the band would convince more and more people they were some funny guys with guitars. The music wouldn’t be good per se, but when the guy who wrote “Tired of Sex” and “Across the Sea” has a fulfilling personal life full of good food, good friends, and good times with his wife/kids/dog he gets a pass on the music thing. All Cuomo wanted on “The Good Life” was to go “back to the good life” and in this scenario he gets his wish. The alternate version of me in this world would be psyched for the guy.
Back to reality. For selfish reasons and also for the sake of the Weezer legacy, I’m glad that Pinkerton is the final Weezer album. The potency of Weezer and Pinkerton would be so tainted by a long run of mediocre albums that I wouldn’t enjoy those two as much I do now. As it stands, the Weezer story is fascinating. Part one is a life-affirming pop-rock triumph, part two is a thorough cleanse of the worst tendencies of adolescence, and there is no part three. What would have come next, had Rivers Cuomo and Weezer continued to make music? This fascinating question has haunted me ever since I first heard the last song on Pinkerton, which is also the last song the band ever made. I worry that I may never know the answer.
*The language of rock ‘n’ roll
**Note: this article is in denial of true events. It pretends that Pinkerton is the final Weezer album, when in fact the band has released six albums since then to increasingly lukewarm reception. To be fair, Weezer puts out Everything Will Be Alright in the End on October 7th which some are touting as a return to form.