Forget the Weezer you know today or the Weezer we were first introduced to back with their debut self-titled LP, now The Blue Album. That’s the one that gave us seminal nerd rock classics “Buddy Holly”, “Say it Ain’t So” and “Undone–The Sweater Song”.
If you want organic, free-range Weezer, Pinkerton is where it’s at. This is not to say the band hasn’t grown or evolved since 1996 or that the post-Pinkerton albums are unworthy of attention.
Rivers Cuomo, the arguably unlikely frontman of the arguably unlikely success that is Weezer, tried to distance himself and the band from Pinkerton. The same thing that made it uncomfortable for him made it the kind of album that turns casual fans into diehards. To listen to Pinkerton is to get a pretty visceral snapshot of where his head was at at that time. After 10 tracks and a scant 35 minutes, it feels like you’ve been offered an understanding of the then man-child that was and is the driving force behind Weezer.
More than that, Pinkerton changes the way you hear and perceive the rest of Weezer’s catalogue.
The album is named after the character in Madama Butterfly, the 1904 opera with which Cuomo, Weezer’s primary creative engine, was obsessed. Pinkerton (the character) is hollow, selfish and cowardly. Pinkerton (the album) details a man’s battle with the same perceived traits.
From the themes of Madama Butterfly to the Ukiyo-e album art to references to Cio-Cio San, and laid most bare in “Across the Sea”, there’s a budding interest in all things Japanese. It kicks in at key points throughout the album. Cuomo was otaku before otaku was defined in the Western sense of the Japanese word.
Lyrically, Pinkerton is a story of getting everything you thought you wanted and realizing it’s all a bit hollow. It’s the story of a man battling with himself as he works to reach some ideal that isn’t yet clear. The album isn’t maudlin, at least not musically. Present is the driving garage rock sound, courtesy (Patrick Wilson on drums, Brian Bell on guitar and Matt Sharp on bass) that typifies much of Weezer’s catalog; complex in its simplicity and vice-versa.
“Tired of Sex” kicks things off. You can probably figure out what the subject of that little ditty is. “I’m spread so thin I don’t know who I am.” Cuomo spoke in interviews about the less than glamorous realities of the glamorous rock star life. All throughout the album you hear and feel how it left him yearning for real connection. You can almost feel the furtive and ultimately unfulfilling interactions that give rise to the opening track.
“Getchoo” is the biggest hint of what future albums are going to sound like. That would be a more impressive statement if it were predictive instead of retrospective. It’s the story of someone who’s gotten used to getting what he wants but who then discovers that the tables can still be turned. From the bridge: “I can’t believe what you’ve done to me. What I did to them, you’ve done to me”
“No Other One” evokes feelings of a dysfunctional relationship as viewed through the eyes of someone with little relationship experience. The “One” in question doesn’t sound like a great partner in crime; more like the kind of person you get involved with and then stick around because fear and inertia take hold. Maybe her album would paint him in a similar light.
“Why Bother?” Part of me wishes that this (just like the rest of the tracks) didn’t bring something great to the table to make the album what it is. Then I’d be able to just say something pithy like “fair question” and move on. This is a song about not wanting to get out of your comfort zone. Of seeing something you think you really want but that you’ll never have if you can’t get over the fear of trying. I totally can’t relate.
“Across the Sea” is a song written in response to a Japanese fan letter. It starts off sweetly with a simple piano and (correct me if I’m wrong) shinobue flute. Then comes the heavy distortion over simple progressions that have always typified the band. If indeed Pinkerton offers a snapshot of where Rivers Cuomo’s head was at, “Across the Sea” demonstrates that it was a pretty confusing place at that time. The longest track on the album, it almost feels like two two-minute songs with a common thread.
“The Good Life” hits reset and says “alright, enough moping around. Let’s get back out there for some of that partying and empty sex we lamented as being ultimately unfulfilling.” It suggests maybe we’re changing gears. Maybe the back half of the album will be a little more carefree.
Not so much. Even in this song about pulling the leather rockstar pants out of storage (speaking figuratively, though if anyone could make that a good song, I’d put my money on this band) and going out to party bears the same longing and confusion as in all the other songs up to this point.
“El Scorcho” is a bit of fun but the same longing and loathing is still an undercurrent. If memorable opening phrases on a sophomore album lead single is ever a Jeopardy category, “what is Goddamn you half Japanese girls, you do it to me every time” is definitely making the board.
It’s coming from the same dark place as the rest of the album but the guitar is driving and lines about shredding on cellos and “I’m the epitome of public enemy” make it feel like a good old-fashioned MTV single.
“Pink Triangle” is a pretty good litmus for whether you’ll like the rest of the album. It unpacks the kind of infatuation that has one person building an entire relationship in their head, unbeknownst to the subject of the fantasy. It details the kind of non-relationship where the other person serves as little more than a prop. It comes crashing down when the fantasizer learns that the subject has a boyfriend or girlfriend, is not a great human, took an instant dislike to the person fantasizing. Whatever. In this case, the carefully constructed fantasy is shattered when we learn the subject is gay. Or, distilled: “I’m dumb, she’s a lesbian.”
“Falling for You” feels like the first song that isn’t laying bare some wound or weakness. I hope the fact that I’d call it the weakest link doesn’t say more about me than it does about the track.
The wrought acoustic “Butterfly” is the perfect way to end the journey. It feels like a thinly veiled metaphor for some deep wrong inflicted on an intimate friend. Or maybe it’s just Cuomo imagining Pinkerton apologizing to Cio-Cio San, aka Madama Butterfly, for being an asshole. The person that could shed light on this subject spent a long time pointedly not talking about the album, and interviewers probably have bigger, more current questions to ask.
Speaking personally, Pinkerton was a formative album. It gave me a new appreciation for and lens through which to see the band’s debut. The Blue Album can be written off as bubblegum without a deeper listen; a few hit singles, a quirky lead-off video with cute concept. Just the latest thing the industrial part of the music industry fed to kids after grunge arguably died along with one of its key icons.
Weezer helped the listeners realize that a nerd isn’t a one-dimensional character as typified in the previous generation’s pop culture. Pinkerton hit reset on what you thought you knew about Weezer.
Ask me if I like emo and you’ll get a knee-jerk no. Call me on that by pointing out that Pinkerton was kinda emo before emo was really defined and I’ll say well played, as I look sullenly out at you from behind the protective barrier of my Manic Panic Infra Red bangs.