Happy 20th Anniversary to Weezer’s Pinkerton, originally released September 24, 1996.
Hindsight is 20/100. Take a look at Genesis’ 1974 rock opera The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Flautist Peter Gabriel took on the crazed persona of Rael, a street hustler who has his penis cut off, along with fellow castrator Doktor Dyper. Together they place their penises in containers and wear them around their necks only to have them snatched up by a conniving bird in the song “The Raven.” What to make of a crowd filled with 20,000 stoned fans singing “Though your fingers may tickle / You’ll be safe in our pickle” along with Gabriel may prompt a second look at what made this one of the best-known rock operas in rock history.
Twenty years later, revisiting Weezer’s 1996 sorrowful sophomore album Pinkerton incites a similar craving to investigate its substance. Also, why did the album named after—and inspired by—the U.S. naval officer who pursued a 15-year-old girl with no intention of remaining married to her inspire a generation of musicians and bands like Thursday, Promise Ring and Dashboard Confessional? Moreover, why does Pinkerton continue to sell an average of 50,000 copies a year twenty years after being dismissed as a commercial failure?
Fact: Pinkerton just went platinum September of this year. Prior to its release, Rolling Stone glossed over the album’s intricacies, reducing it to a work with “plenty of Weezer’s signature dorkiness,” and “suggesting that underneath the geeky teenager pose is an artist well on his way to maturity.” The success of the band’s self-titled 1994 debut album, more affectionately known as The Blue Album, cast a long shadow over its follow-up. No “Buddy Holly” or “Say It Ain’t So” here.
The Blue Album leftover “Tired of Sex” provided little residue from its 1994 debut. Embarrassed by the song, Weezer’s chief songwriter Rivers Cuomo told Entertainment Weekly in 2001 that it was a “painful mistake,” comparing it to being drunk, spilling your guts and feeling “cathartic about it” at the time, but then waking up only to realize ‘what a complete fool you made of yourself.’”
Blue invited the nerds outside of the margins and into the center, encouraging them to get out of their basements and unite. Pinkerton, on the other hand, created a warmth and fostered a relationship between some of their fans. Giving them a glimpse into Cuomo’s psyche, fans bonded themselves to the twisted rock opera and Cuomo himself. Fans who first navigated Pinkerton’s landscape looking for another “Undone” delved into the core of Cuomo’s imagined reworking of Madame Butterfly, looking for him and finding themselves.
Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre announced his profound love for the album to Alternative Press, calling it his “favorite overall album of all time.” Brand New’s sophomore album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me strongly resembles Pinkerton’s ethos. Murkier and moodier than Pinkerton, it walks a fine line throughout, maintaining its theme of suffering and the inevitability of meeting death one day. Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World told MTV that he started his band when Blue came out, but became more confessional with his thoughts because of Blue’s successor.
On the closing track "Butterfly," Cuomo casts his confessional spell from the tortured perspective of Pinkerton. “I smell you on my hands for days / I can’t wash away your scent / If I’m a dog, then you’re a bitch” sounds sweet coming from Cuomo’s quavering voice. Yet, that last line—“If I’m a dog, then you’re a bitch”—prompts a momentary pause for thought. Like Kathy Acker’s post-modern retelling of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, his reinterpretation of Pinkerton’s regret-filled reflection repels and attracts simultaneously. His honesty is raw, and his interpretation is more than a quasi-homage to Puccini’s most beloved work.
While attending Harvard, Cuomo received a letter from a Japanese fan. Deeply impacted by the letter, he remarked that when he received it, he fell in love with the presumably young fan: “When I got the letter, I fell in love with her. It was such a great letter. I was very lonely at the time, but at the same time I was very depressed that I would never meet her. Even if I did see her, she was probably some fourteen-year-old girl, who didn’t speak English.”
Cited by Cuomo as the turning point when his science fiction influenced rock opera called Songs from the Black Hole, “Across the Sea” established the album’s tone and set sail toward his fascination with Madame Butterfly’s story. The song’s fragile, deceptively thoughtless upper-register piano melody accompanied by an out-of-tune violin failing to imitate the same feeble melody. “Across the Sea” is Weezer’s most adventurous composition. It plays with the loud-quiet-loud dynamics while weaving an earnest longing for a love that will never materialize.
Nearly its equal, “Pink Triangle” famously inquires “If everyone’s a little queer / Why can’t she be a little straight?” The guitars exchange dissonant notes following the second chorus, confused like the narrator’s realization that the one he loves—a lesbian—he can never have. The pink triangle found on her sleeve underscores his declaration of how dumb he is not to have recognized the clue she wears like his own heart on his own sleeve.
Married in his mind Cuomo is throughout his most confessional record. Pinkerton is about his own self-serving exile and isolation. Madame Butterfly is the persona he assumes to confess his misery. The Rentals’ and former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp felt the impact of Cuomo’s isolation. The record would push him away, since Weezer no longer resembled the vision they shared when they, along with guitarist Jason Cropper (replaced by Brian Bell) and Patrick Wilson, recorded Blue. Legal battles over songwriting credit and monetary compensation plus Sharp’s own musical vision tore the seam that once bonded the two. Even though time heals all wounds, Sharp leaving in 1998 in the midst of Weezer’s hiatus ended the opening chapter in Weezer’s ongoing saga.
The once reviled and “juvenile” label required repeated listens. Today, the album is the gatefold path Weezer neophytes walk. Personal tumult and self-inflicted alienation connected with the music and its artwork by Japanese ukiyo-e artist, Hiroshige. Fans saw themselves in the pitch-black background. The darkness emboldened them to adopt Cuomo’s sincerity, cloaked in Puccini’s lovelorn tragedy. Just as Brian Eno once famously suggested about The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, Pinkerton’s soul-bearing, tortured songwriting made everyone who bought a copy want to start a band.