I couldn’t review the Blue Album without writing about the other half of one of the most essential rock duologies of the ’90s. While a lot of people never saw Weezer’s mainstream success coming, their self titled debut inexplicably became an overnight sensation, and this motley crew of lame-o dorks became unlikely rock stars. Naturally, they would begin work on a followup to this monumental icon, a tall order to be sure. Though Pinkerton has received an inordinate amount of adoration over the years, thing weren’t always so smooth for this late bloomer masterpiece. In its own time, this was the textbook definition of the infamous difficult sophomore record.
After the success of the Blue Album, Weezer went into the studio to begin work on their followup. Rivers had a vision to create a sprawling rock opera concept album with a sci-fi narrative about troubled relationships and disillusionment with the rock star lifestyle. Titled Songs From The Black Hole, the ill fated project was to feature six vocalists playing the part of six different characters. While it was certainly an ambitious concept, it was not to be. Plans changed, and what we got instead was a darker successor to an iconic ’90s album.
Around the time of recording SFTBH, Rivers underwent extensive surgery to lengthen one of his legs, as he was born with one leg shorter than the other. This led to many hospitalizations where he was treated with painkillers. The severe pain he was enduring had an adverse effect on his songwriting. Around the same time, he decided to enroll in Harvard University. College life wasn’t always a pleasant experience for him. He began to feel completely alone and grew increasingly bitter. All of a sudden, the rock opera concept seemed too whimsical to Rivers, and he was determined to craft a more abrasive confessional album. And thus, SFTBH would slowly morph into the album that would become Pinkerton.
When the album was first released, it wasn’t hailed as the seminal record it is today. The reaction was highly polarizing to say the least. It turned off many fans and critics with its noisier sonic texture and emotionally honest oversharing. What they wanted was more of the geeky charm and polished pop sheen of the Blue Album, but instead got a rawer affair with more bitter, even embarrassing lyrics. It was voted third worst album of 1996 by readers of Rolling Stone magazine, critics gave it mixed reviews, and it was a commercial disappointment, peaking at #19 on the billboard charts and not achieving platinum status until two decades after the fact. Even Rivers distanced himself from the album, seeing it as embarassing and shying away from playing the songs live before eventually coming around.
Over time though, the album’s reputation would grow in stature. It connected with an entire generation of forlorn youth who could relate to the candid honesty of the album. It paved the way for a new wave of emo pop and would continue to receive more love as the years passed by. It is now considered a high watermark in the ’90s rock canon, and is today regularly placed on “best of” lists. While it still has some dissenters, it is now beloved by the vast majority of Weezer fans. Even Rivers himself grew to love it, and has since stated that he is proud of what the band achieved with their work. So what do I think of Pinkerton?
Let me just dispel something right off the bat. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not as radical a departure from the Blue Album as people love to claim. While it is certainly different, it’s not like it’s a harsh noise rock record that sounds like it was made by a completely different band. The album does have a gritty, unrefined nature, but it is still a power pop album through and through. It still contains plenty of the sheer melodicism and catchy hooks of it’s predecessor, just with an unpolished veneer. In fact, it holds some of the most hummable melodies and contagious singalongs of Weezer’s career.
The rawer feel this time around works in the album’s favor. Looking to recreate the essence of their live performances, Weezer decided to record the album themselves. This serves to create a looser energy and gives it a sloppy edge that the Blue Album didn’t have. The scuzzy lower budget aesthetic and raw, rough around the edges imperfections give it a frailty that makes it feel more human. The noisy production compounded with the frustrated introspective lyrics succeeds in creating a powerful, touching dynamic. The noisy production combined with the pop songwriting makes for a beautiful chaos.
While the production was more raw and the playing more sloppy, Pinkerton still contains some of the finest instrumentation of Weezer’s entire catalog. Rivers, a former metal guitarist before Weezer, seemed determined to showcase his shredding capabilities with blistering, high octane guitar solos in songs like “Tired Of Sex” and “Why Bother.” Drummer Pat Wilson pounds harder than ever, and his cymbal work in particular is worthy of praise. Matt sharp contributes some of his finest basslines, making the resulting tone more bottom heavy than ever before. The interplay between Rivers Cuomo and rhythm guitarist Brian Bell is more focused than ever, and the album features some of their most complex tracks to date. Of particular note is “Falling For You,” which they’ve gone on record as stating that it’s one of their most difficult songs to perform live.
Luckily, Pinkerton contains some of Weezer’s best ever songs. They’re also surprisingly diverse. The album opens with “Tired Of Sex,” one of the most abrasive songs of their career, complemented by a riotous squall of feedback and low budget keyboard. This is followed by the downtuned “Getchoo,” a destructive force that stands as one of their heaviest songs. Proving they aren’t just one trick ponies, they close the album with the acoustic ballad “Butterfly,” arguably the most tender they would ever get. There are numerous key changes throughout, and “No Other One” employs a waltz-like 3/4 rhythm. “Across The Sea” features subtle piano playing, and I dare anyone not to hum along to infectious tracks like “El Scorcho,” “Why Bother,” and “The Good Life.” Their influence from indie forefathers like the Pixies is more evident than ever, the guitars have a satisfying crunch, and they still have a knack for delicious pop hooks.
I think the deluxe edition of this gem deserves special mention. It’s jam packed with live performances, acoustic sets, alternate/demo takes, and even a snippet from a radio interview with a confused fan. But what really takes the deluxe version to the next level is the nine bonus tracks that are included, making this two disc set the definitive edition of the already classic album. These include b-sides, songs originally intended for Songs From The Black Hole, and tracks that were previously unreleased.
These songs are now among my personal favorite Weezer songs to exist. As an example, “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly” is an energetic, longing, and gleeful rollercoaster ride about a one night stand in under two minutes. “I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams”, a keyboard heavy number, is unique in that if features vocals from Rachel Haden of That Dog, the only SFTBH song to go through with the concept of different singers portraying different characters. “I Swear It’s True” is a hazy drug trip with the crunchiest riffs this side of the cereal isle. “Longtime Sunshine” is a soothing pining for the simple life. “Getting Up And Leaving” with its sun soaked melodies and vocal harmonies is arguably the closest to the Beach Boys they’ve ever gotten. “Tragic Girl” was unrecorded until the deluxe edition, and is one of the most beautiful songs from the band. “You Won’t Get With Me Tonight” is insanely catchy and the keyboard solo is sublime. Devotion is a slow waltz with the addition of church. One of my favorites, “Waiting On You,” is a scuzzy yet shimmering number about not being able to get over your ex.
This time around, the album takes on a more bitter and reflective stance. Rivers sings about his emotional issues and low self-esteem in a more direct manner than on the Blue Album. Subject matter here includes his inability to talk to girls (“El Scorcho”), not even attempting a relationship due to being hurt in the past (“Why Bother”), and turning the rock and roll groupie cliche on its head and desiring something real over casual hookups (“Tired Of Sex”). Rivers was expressing all his frustrations and fears, and he does so in a blunt fashion. He pulls no punches about his inner turmoil, and the album is littered with dark undertones. You can practically feel Rivers’ pain and anguish in his voice. Even the “happiest” song on the album, “Falling For You,” displays him getting the girl, but of course, he’s so insecure he ponders over why she would want anything to do with him.
Despite the legendary status the album now enjoys, it still has its fair share of detractors. Some will criticize it for what they perceive as embarrassing lyrics. And to be fair, the subject matter can be very awkward. Hearing Rivers obsess over a barely legal high school girl to the point of wondering what clothes she wears and whether she masturbates while thinking about him (“Across The Sea”) is unnervingly creepy, and he comes off as a stalker. Listening to him wish a lesbian he’s got a thing for was straight will likely make you cringe. His Japanese fetish is odd. In “El Scorcho,” he recounts breaking into a girl’s room and reading her diary. This is all unsettling, and more than a little toxic.
But to be completely honest, that’s part of what I love about this album. It can get very uncomfortable, but the unflinching, self aware honesty is refreshing. The unabashed confessional nature of the album takes no compromises, and as a result, feels much more personal than many albums of its breed. We all have those uneasy thoughts we just keep to ourselves. We would never tell anyone out of fear of embarrassment. That Rivers was able to be completely sincere and spill his guts in such a candid manner is admirable, however uncomfortable the lyrics can get. It’s almost as if you’re listening to someone’s personal diary, reading every private thought most people would keep secret.
It’s no surprise that Pinkerton was such a cornerstone of the emo movement. Its brutal honesty connected with generations of despondent youth who wore their hearts on their sleeves. It’s tough to imagine third wave bands like Saves The Day, the Get Up Kids, Jimmy Eat World, or My Chemical Romance existing without Pinkerton moving the genre in a more pop direction. While it was a flop in its own time, over the years, many would relate to its themes of insecurity, bitterness, and low self esteem, myself included. Its portrayal of failed relationships was among the most candid in rock history up to that point. Combined with its delicious pop coating and rough (some would say more natural sounding) production, it’s easy to see why it’s hailed as such a masterpiece. Personally, this is my favorite album of all time.