Every time I come back to Pinkerton, I feel the same hesitancy just before hitting play. Have I finally outgrown this record? Will the second-hand embarrassment of hearing Rivers Cuomo croon “smell you on my hand for days / can’t wash your scent away” be too much to bear this time around? And then, as soon as those booming drums enter to kick off “Tired Of Sex,” I’m pulled all the way back in, any lingering doubts quickly falling away. Truthfully, I don’t ever expect Pinkerton to wear out. In fact, one of the most crucial aspects of its appeal is that, despite the decidedly teenage-inflected emotional outlook, this is music conceived by a fully grown man. Indeed, critics at the time were quick to criticize the “juvenilia” in Cuomo’s songwriting, missing, of course, that that juvenilia is precisely what makes the record remarkable. It’s why “Tired Of Sex” is such a brilliant opener: it vibrates with all of the sexual frustration of a horny high schooler desperate to lose their virginity, only the subject is reversed. Too much sex is the issue, as the newly-anointed rock star realizes that what he really craves is a genuine connection. Though it has resonated deeply with multiple generations of angsty teens, Pinkerton is even better appreciated after one reaches adulthood, and realizes, much as Cuomo did, that those ugly adolescent feelings don’t all simply vanish, that we don’t ever completely mature.
The odd history of Weezer’s 1996 sophomore opus is well-documented at this point, but it’s worth restating all the same. Following the enormous success of his band’s 1994 self-titled debut, Rivers Cuomo found himself disillusioned with the diminishing returns of fame, and elected to take a break from Weezer to study composition at Harvard. Around that same time, he underwent intensive orthopedic surgery to lengthen one of his legs, which led to prolonged hospitalizations and extreme physical pain. As a result, the period in between albums was described by Cuomo as an “ascetic” one — he was constantly hopped up on painkillers to manage his recovery, and found himself socially isolated on account of his intensive studies. All of that, coupled with the weight of his newfound celebrity, made it an understandably dark time for Cuomo, and Pinkerton is what came out of it.
Compared to the quirky pop songs and silly music videos that defined their initial success, Pinkerton’s raw soul-baring was quite a shock. Electing to produce the record themselves, the band settled on a somewhat harsher sound — a fitting match for the volatile emotions no doubt, but a stark contrast to Ric Ocasek’s slick production on The Blue Album. Further complicating things, Pinkerton is fashioned as a concept album, Cuomo’s romantic and existential suffering grafted onto the tragic narrative of Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly, which became an obsessive object for the jaded songwriter. That intertextual relationship is actually quite poignant, though it manifests most immediately in Cuomo’s explicit and awkward fixation with Asian women. Perhaps not so shockingly, the album flopped, and Cuomo took the disappointing critical and commercial reaction quite hard. For years, he strove to distance himself from his failure, haunted by what he perceived as a resounding rejection of his own suffering. “It’s a hideous record,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “It was such 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.” What was supposed to be catharsis instead became a debilitating embarrassment, only exacerbating his pain.
On one hand, the criticism makes complete sense. Pinkerton is repulsive, there’s no way around it. All of the lyrics that turned listeners off at the time have only become more uncomfortable today; the self-pitying lament over a crush who turned out to be a lesbian hasn’t by any means “aged well.” But Pinkerton isn’t great in spite of its ‘problematic’ qualities — it’s great in large part because of them, because of the discomfort that comes with exposure to the dark depths of someone else’s troubled personhood. “Pink Triangle” is one of the record’s best songs, not just because of its incredible double-tracked guitar solo and earworm melodies, but also because it forces us to sing along to a chorus that goes “I’m dumb she’s lesbian.” (It also features maybe Rivers Cuomo’s most hysterical line: “Everyone’s a little queer / oh can’t she be a little straight?”) He knows full well that what he’s expressing is pathetic, and that’s the entire point. But one could never accuse him of inauthenticity because no one who was merely posturing would write a record this unbecoming. He’s laying it all out plainly, hoping we will find some kinship in his ugliness, because whether we choose to admit it or not, we all have it in us somewhere.
Undoubtedly the most notorious of all the ugly spots on Pinkerton is, of course, also probably the record’s high point. “Across The Sea” is a masterful piece of pop songwriting, a barrage of hooks and key changes carried momentously by snarling guitars and Patrick Wilson’s typically dynamic drumming. One would be forgiven for overlooking the lyrics on a first listen, but from it’s opening lines it’s clear that Cuomo isn’t hiding anything: “You are eighteen-year-old girl / who live in small city in Japan.” The song is presented as a response to a letter from this young fan, upon whom Cuomo proceeds to project all of his own loneliness and dissatisfaction; she becomes a symbol for everything that he wants, namely because she is, by virtue of both her location and age, categorically unattainable. But the obsessiveness with which he goes about it all is alarming: “I sniff and I lick your envelope / and fall to pieces every time,” he whines, and soon goes on to fantasize about her masturbating. The rabid eroticism is uniquely upsetting — “Getchoo” is disturbing in its aggressive lust, “No Other One” sad in its defeated passivity, but nothing is as straight-up icky as “Across The Sea.” And yet, especially within the context of the album, it’s also incredibly powerful as an ode to the destructive nature of desire, the pain of wanting something we can’t, or shouldn’t, have. It’s an unforgettable song, and for better or worse, it gets to the essence of Pinkerton’s effect.
At a certain point it becomes difficult to pin down exactly why Pinkerton works the way it does. There’s just something so perfectly balanced in its alchemy; the extreme self-laceration grabs your attention, but Cuomo somehow maintains just enough sympathy to keep one from completely checking out. Even when he does push beyond most people’s boundary of relatability, this autobiographical figure he’s created is too much of a maniac for us to look away. And, of course, the music itself is absolutely irresistible, fuzzed-out power pop of the highest order. I feel forced to resort to critical cliches, to laud his “bracing honesty,” because frankly, how else could one explain the sheer gutsiness of such a performance. Perhaps it’s simply the oddity of Cuomo as a personality; plenty of music is confessional, but nothing else is confessional quite like this. He’s not just letting us in on his pain, he’s letting us see that he’s a freak. But a freak in much the same way that deep down we know we all are, even though the details are bound to vary. He’s ashamed of himself, sure, but he’s still not pulling any punches, and that in itself is admirable.
Despite its lukewarm reception, Pinkerton would quickly develop a cult following, effectively serving as the accidental forefather of turn-of-the-millennium emo bands like Jimmy Eat World and Saves The Day, and remaining an unlikely but crucial touchstone for all sorts of indie rock all the way through today. Thanks to its steadily mounting popularity, Cuomo would eventually come to appreciate his twisted creation too, but he never shook off the pain of that initial rejection. After Pinkerton, he completely abandoned any real sense of vulnerability in his songwriting, preferring to keep things glossy and fun and largely shallow, never again even remotely approaching the magical depths of his sophomore effort. And while it’s sad that this exercise in nakedness had such a devastating effect on its creator, such a tragic result also seems perfectly fitting for an album so concerned with self-destruction.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.