In 1995 after a multi-platinum debut record, touring around the world, insanely popular music videos on MTV, as well as earning the respect of countless fans and critics, Weezer began work on their sophomore album. Early in it’s conception, it was intended to be somewhat of a rock opera with science-fiction elements, expressing the primary song writer/frontman Rivers Cuomo’s mixed feelings about success and popularity. That concept was nixed when Cuomo underwent a painful leg surgery, putting him in and out of the hospital during his recovery and hindering his day to day activity which of course, included songwriting.
During his recovery, Cuomo began exploring a darker subject matter within his writing. Swapping out the playful power-pop of their debut with heavier themes of failure and insecurity. By the time the band was ready to track the album that would eventually be named Pinkerton, Cuomo was enrolled at Havard University, forcing them to record during subsequent breaks and holidays. In order to capture their raw, garage rock sound, the band decided to produce it themselves instead of choosing an established producer.
The result was a darker, personal album that had little relation to their debut. Although the label was happy with the record, the mild success of the lead single “El Scorcho” and it’s awkward music video, said otherwise. Pinkerton peaked at number 19 on the US Billboard Top 100, and was deemed a disappointment not long after. Two other singles, “The Good Life” and “Pink Triangle” did almost nothing to convince the general public to give it a chance. Most critics and fans criticized the album for being disjointed and lacking the quirky fun of the debut album. Rolling Stone even labeled it the third worst album of 1996.
I won’t lie and say I felt it was an instant classic upon my first listen back then, but after a few play throughs, the album worked it’s way under my skin and touched upon my own adolescent issues in ways I least expected. With it’s themes of insecurity, failed expectation, and the fear of getting into bad relationships, in many ways Pinkerton was the official album for social outcasts. Not goths or rebels, but the kids who went under the social radar. The same kids who were too boring to be losers, and no where near cool enough to be loners. Too shy to talk to girls but still trying their hardest to live up to the standards their peers had in mind. Kids like me. It was our album. It spoke to me like no other album did at the time.
The awkward, claustrophobic feel of the album is what truly makes it special. Instead of the wide eyed innocence of previous songs like “Buddy Holly” or “Surf Wax America”, where Cuomo sounds as if he is a teenager charming his peers with his wit and boyish humor, songs like “No Other One” and “Falling For You” sound like someone who’s stuck in their head, crying for help. The anti-production heightens the tension and makes even the slightest detail, like the random squeal of guitar feedback, mean something. It captures the chaos of being trapped under one’s insecurity in a way where it’s painful at times. That’s not to say there wasn’t any fun to be had, there’s plenty of fast paced alt rock anthems such as the second single “The Good Life” and “Why Bother?” (my favorite Weezer song), but even as fun as the choruses are, there’s still an underlying theme of heartache and loneliness.
It’s obvious Pinkerton was a bit too ambitious for a sophomore release and arguably ahead of it’s time. Had this been Weezer’s third or fourth album, or released around the mainstream emo movement of the early 2000’s, it would’ve found the correct audience. In the summer of 1996, the alternative rock scene was still finding it’s footing after the death of grunge, and clearly wasn’t ready for something as uncomfortable as the introspective nature this album offered, especially from a band who’s last album featured a music video based around the Happy Days sitcom. After the disappointing sales, the band went on a long hiatus and bassist Matt Sharp left the band to pursue other music endeavors. When they resurfaced in 2001, they boasted a far more polished sound similar to their debut. It’s debatable Weezer has released anything as emotional and personal as Pinkerton ever since.
In recent years, Pinkerton gained somewhat of a cult status. Fans and critics alike warmed up to it and has even become a fan favorite. Rolling Stone, with it’s infamous revisionist history, retracted it’s ugly 1996 review, and now lists it as one of the greatest albums of the 90s. Weezer even played the album in it’s entirety on it’s ‘Memories’ tour in 2015 to the delight of fans which proves my theory of it being ahead of it’s time. It’s almost like the 90s equivalent of Pet Sounds in the way it took nearly two decades for listeners to actually get it. Without sounding too hipster, that’s okay with me. It’s such a personal and sentimental album for me, I’m not sure if it would’ve had the same impact if it were one of the year’s most popular releases. It’s underdog sentiments are part of it’s charm.
Pinkerton turns 20 years old this year and even though Weezer has released 8 albums since , varying in quality (including this year’s White Album) they’ve never released a record that’s had the same impact on me. There’s a solid anniversary release out there with some fantastic demos and original mixes as well as a new reissue on vinyl. If you’ve never given it a chance, I seriously urge you to give it a listen. It’s a personal, abrasive album that’s painful and sometimes strange, but after a few listens in 1996, it found it’s way on my personal list of favorite albums of all time, where it remains 20 years later. Happy Birthday Pinkerton.