In 1994, Weezer released their self-titled debut, also known as The Blue Album. It’s easy to see why they became such an overnight sensation. Lead singer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo perfectly painted the picture of what being a nerdy loner in the ’90s was like. They were just normal, geeky losers, who loved X-Men and KISS. They were the nice guys who finished last and found solace hanging out in the garage. Despite identifying as social outcasts, The Blue Album struck one hell of a chord leaving fans desperate for more of the accessible, catchy, and great garage rock that became synonymous with Weezer.
What they got was Pinkerton, a messy, impassioned, and deeper album than their debut. On The Blue Album, Cuomo hinted at an emotional vulnerability that never quite materialized. With Pinkerton, Cuomo lays his fears, frustrations, and insecurities bare on the table. Emotional isn’t a strong enough word to describe Pinkerton. The album is messy. It feels improvised and experimental. Tracks are fuzzy with feedback like they’re first-take B-sides.
And it’s their best album.
Songs From The Black Hole
The title of the album comes from Madama Butterfly, a three-act opera written by Giacomo Puccini. The play was based on a short story Madame Butterfly written by John Luther Long in 1887 about an American Naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who weds a geisha named Cho-Cho-San in Nagasaki before leaving her to care for their child. The story and play detail Cho-Cho-San’s wait for Pinkerton’s return.
Cuomo had originally intended to do an adaptation of the play for their follow-up album which was going to be titled Songs From The Black Hole. Cuomo’s “space opera” was eventually scrapped (though has been demanded by fans for years), but the some songs eventually made their way onto Pinkerton. The cover art is taken from Kambara Yoru No Yuki, or Night Snow at Kambara, a painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige. While the direct adaptation of Madama Butterfly never happened outright, there are several references to Japan in the album.
There were probably a few reasons why the space opera never materialized, but it’s a safe bet the surgery Cuomo underwent in 1995 was a major factor. Cuomo was born with one leg shorter than the other and had to undergo painful corrective surgery that left him under the influence of painkillers and physically exhausted. They recorded half of the album in August of 1995, shortly before Cuomo would leave to study at Harvard. From the start, Weezer intended to get more raw while remaining true to themselves which is why the album deliberately has a ‘live’ feel. The rest of the songs were recorded around Cuomo’s academic schedule, frequently over breaks between semesters, with finishing touches done early in the summer of 1996.
Geffen Records were initially concerned about the viability of Weezer, worried their first album might have been a fluke. But by the time the album was finished, the label had extreme confidence in the follow-up. Their efforts had paid off. Geffen and Weezer unfortunately were way ahead of their time. And not without their share of bad luck. The Pinkerton security firm (the same one Booker DeWitt of Bioshock Infinite) sued Geffen for attempting to capitalize on their brand. Cuomo was forced to write a defense of the album’s title citing the play as his muse. Upon seeing the artwork, which reinforced the Japanese inspirations, the court threw the case out.
“I’m Tired. So tired.”
Tired Of Sex kicks off the ten-track followup. The song perfectly embodies why the rest of the album was so divisive. It’s written from the perspective of a man who works his way through meaningless sexual encounters ad nauseum while wondering why he can’t make “true love come true.”
Its hard not to look at Tired Of Sex as a reaction to suddenly becoming famous for Cuomo. Their nerdiness was their charm, and becoming that popular overnight must have been a total shock. Let’s not forget Cuomo was coming off of a stressful surgery. Now we get songs from the perspective of a man worn out by the fame. Cuomo is still vulnerable, but unlike The Blue Album, this time his vulnerability is alienating. He’s not the geek in his garage now, he’s a famous rock star and he’s telling you that having it all isn’t worth it.
The fame is also unfulfilling in other ways. Across The Sea is about a man breaking down due to being separated from someone he thinks he loves. The Japanese imagery is strong in this song (and one can see the Madama Butterfly inspirations). It’s based on an actual letter from a fan of his in Japan. He sings hoping to reconnect with her, but part of him knows it’s not to be.
That’s the depressing element that looms over most of the album. Objectively speaking, being a famous rocker should get him everything he wants, but he’s still that same nerd he always was. But now he’s been unceremoniously taken out of his comfort zone. Being famous doesn’t help him get the courage to say hi to a crush (El Scorcho) or change his luck when it comes to choosing girls (Pink Triangle).
The songs showcase a tonal difference, musically and lyrically. Perhaps Cuomo’s exhaustion and changed life experiences did make him more comfortable in being honest with himself. The album has been described as a confessional. Cuomo puts himself out there. For the most part, these songs don’t feel like they were meant to be arena crowd pleasers. It’s not a happy or fun album at all.
Or rather, as a whole it is not a happy crowd pleaser. El Scorcho, the first single, has an awesome chorus that clearly is meant to be shouted loudly with your friends. The Good Life is lighter, and probably the most accessible song on the album.
But then you overlook tracks like Getchoo, Why Bother, and Falling For You, which showcase his real honesty. And that honesty is inconsistent and real. Tired Of Sex and The Good Life seem contradictory in how they present Cuomo’s desire for love versus getting laid. Across The Sea feels like he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown at times. This is a band struggling with their new place in life. They went from the garage to the big leagues. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but at the very least people are listening and Cuomo can open up a bit more, brilliantly showcasing his writing talents in the process.
“One of the worst albums of all time.”
Once the album was finally released, the band were immensely proud of what they had done. Unfortunately, the album was a critical and commercial failure, peaking #19 on the charts. Weezer were ultimately victims of expectation. Cuomo has stated that they were focused on making an album that sounded good with The Blue Album and that Pinkerton was meant to be more natural and representative of themselves.
Rolling Stone’sreview by Rob O’Connor seemed to set the overall perception of the album. The album scored 3/5 stars, but would later be ranked as the second-worst album of the year by its readership.
The album was so terribly received that Cuomo himself has done an about face. The deeply emotional singer had put his heart on his sleeve with Pinkerton and that unfortunately turned into a national embarrassment for him and the band. Any sense of pride he ever had for the album is gone. He had since gone on to call it a “hideous record…a hugely painful mistake…[that] just won’t go away.” The public disdain for Pinkerton sent Cuomo into a depression that lasted for several years. Cuomo told Entertainment Weekly in 2001 that “Everybody hated it. Critics, the majority of our fans, most of my friends and family, the other band members….Everyone thought it was an embarrassment. One of the worst albums of all time.” The album combined with Cuomo’s behavior are attributed to why bassist Matt Sharp would later leave the band.
Public opinion has come around since then in the twenty years since Pinkerton first came out. The confessional and honest nature of the album is now applauded. Pinkerton was a victim of success and overwhelming expectation. When it wasn’t what they expected, the kneejerk reaction was to be absolutely brutal to the band. In fact, it’s terrifying to imagine how Pinkerton would have been received in a Twitter/Facebook era where vitriolic and not-thought-out criticism is par for the course.
While most now hold the album in high regard, the real legacy of Pinkerton is how it forever made Weezer the band they are today. The Blue Album was cookie cutter because they were trying hard to please, not because they were playing it safe. With Pinkerton they took risks, exposing their personal nature, and they got burned. Their third album, The Green Album, was cookie cutter because they were too scared to do anything other than to play it safe.
The Green Album was a course correction. The title and album artwork were clearly appealing to the fans they felt they had alienated with Pinkerton. The Rivers Cuomo who took inspiration from obscure Japanese stories and was nervous talking to girls sank into a depression and came back different. He resigned himself to the idea that he had done something so wrong and offensive that he himself can’t acknowledge any positive feelings towards Pinkerton. Now they were a band of easy, non-offensive, boring lyrics and catchy guitar riffs. They sing about romantic insecurities, but they lack any authenticity now.
That’s not to say that Weezer is bad now. But any edge, anger, insecurity, or experimentation is gone. They’ve produced eight albums in the past sixteen years, which one would argue is the sign that their process is a bit more mechanical than emotional. Cuomo has been so publicly shamed that hearing him speak of Pinkerton is like watching Chris Christie fearfully endorse Donald Trump with a gun pointed at his head. The success of Weezer also had finally been cemented with The Green Album. And their nerdy side would over the years become more hipster schtick.
Years later with Beverly Hills, Cuomo appears to finally stop holding onto his old life. He ends the song acknowledging that he doesn’t belong, but it feels like he’s accepted where he is regardless. To call a band a sell-out is a cheap insult, but unfortunately selling out must have appeared to be the only viable option for Cuomo at the time. Maybe he realizes a truth he was reluctant to admit all along. They never wanted Weezer. Not the real Weezer anyway.