In 1995, Rivers Cuomo was feeling, at the very least, disillusioned. Undergoing painful leg reconstruction surgery, and gruelling physiotherapy to match, he had also found his new life as a fully-fledged rock star somewhat shallow. Deciding to apply for university, he issued this gambit within his application: “Fans ask me all the time what it’s like to be a rock star, and I tell them the same thing…you will get lonely.”
Frustration, singularity, aloofness, loss – these are just four issues that are covered in Weezer’s sophomore album. Pinkerton is a chronicle of Cuomo’s catharsis, a gritty sojourn into sexual emptiness, self-laceration and dissatisfaction. Commercially and critically barren when originally released, in twenty years it has become the touchstone for awkward alternative rock, not to mention the most controversial and coveted moment of Weezer’s distinguished, and ongoing, career.
Pinkerton is important on myriad levels – not only did it produce some of the gawky four-piece’s strongest material, it was also Cuomo at his most bare and confessional; never again would the band offer such intimate intricacies. In fact, Cuomo went on record several times denouncing its quality, calling it a “hideous” record and “a painful mistake.” It also enticed the band into a lengthy sabbatical, in which Cuomo – deflated by the record’s startlingly savage reaction – practiced the Asian art of hikikimori, painting one’s walls and windows black for a period of self-reflection.
It’s fitting that Cuomo would react by using such a method, for Asia crops up frequently throughout Pinkerton, from its Hiroshige artwork to its lead single, the pummeling ‘El Scorcho’, in which Cuomo begins the song by wailing: “God damn, you half-Japanese girls, do it to me every time”. As a single, ‘El Scorcho’ may have had more levity, cracking quips about Green Day, wrestling moves and Cuomo’s own shyness around the opposite sex, but it didn’t have the breezy humour of ‘Buddy Holly’ (nor, for that matter, the MTV-gobbling video).
With Pinkerton being a quest for seriousness, Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek were removed from directing duties, with Cuomo himself handling the editing for ‘El Scorcho’, a video that kept a straight face, alienating those that had warmed to the band over games of hacky sack and Happy Days rehashes.
Twenty years on, Pinkerton may be abrasive, but it’s certainly not unapproachable. Opener ‘Tired of Sex’ is a statement of intent, its fidgety, darker riffs giving way to Cuomo’s weary howl of “I’m tired of having sex”, born from his disconnected dalliances with various groupies. The record enters sweeter terrain with ‘Pink Triangle’, a summery strum that was inspired by a letter to Cuomo from a Japanese fan, while closer ‘Butterfly’ unearthed the band’s love of lush, Big Star-style power pop. Throughout, Cuomo strives for something deeper, more meaningful, giving us his grief in whipsmart song format.
While Cuomo would later view his honesty as something of a weakness, Pinkerton serves as not only a neat time capsule for his disillusion, but also as a relatable text for the modern misfit. ‘Why Bother’, with its rampaging drums and blistering guitar riff, is deceptively throwaway as Cuomo sighs: “this happened to me twice before / it won’t happen to me anymore”, a million broken hearts no doubt finding solace in such a sighing statement of defiance. ‘No Other One’ is equally as grand, a heartfelt strum that may have the album’s trademark scuzzy cut and thrust, but betrays it with a striking chorus as Cuomo yearns with aplomb.
The record did also contain something of a hit single. ‘The Good Life’ was more accessible than ‘El Scorcho’, a chugging, nagging guitar riff giving way to Cuomo’s pleads of “it’s time I got back to the good life”, after complaining of his status as a Harvard outcast and his cane – given to him during his recovery from surgery – made him feel like “an old man…broke and beaten down.” A video, starring comedy guest star staple Mary Lynn Rajskub (and a three-panel style that would later be cribbed by Blink 182 for ‘Always’), was hastily put together to try and halt Pinkerton‘s slide…but it was to no avail. The critics had spoken, and the bubble that was born from The Blue Album had well and truly been popped.
It would be five years until the world would hear from Weezer again, and even then it completely eschewed Pinkerton‘s gravelly demeanour for the bubblegum brightness of The Green Album. Cuomo and co have become one of the world’s biggest bands, the missing link between Nirvana and Green Day, a Foo Fighters for those with inhalers. They’re still there for the alternatives, the outcasts and those that just want to jam grungily in their garage. They also continue to produce surprisingly prolific material, with 2016’s The White Album being one of their finest, most consistent records.
From then to now, Pinkerton has, retrospectively, amassed a perfect score on Metacritic and a 10/10 Pitchfork rating. Even Cuomo has made his peace with it, touring the album in toto and calling it “super-deep, brave and authentic.” He’s certainly not the only one to share that view.