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Holy Hell! Pinkerton Turns 20

Holy Hell! Pinkerton Turns 20

Like most of the things that you liked in high school, Pinkerton hasn’t really aged well.

Pinkerton is not the worst album of 1996. There’s a legion of Weezer fans who will angrily remind you of this, but I’m not talking about Pinkerton’s quality so much as I’m talking about the myth of Pinkerton. Part of what makes this album so beloved now are the stories about how this album was so reviled upon its release. Particularly, fans like to cite a Rolling Stone list that deemed Pinkerton to be the worst album of 1996. Now, that isn’t exactly true (Pinkerton placed behind Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, which might be the actual worst album of 1996), but it’s important in setting up the dynamic of Pinkerton in its narrative as the Little Album That Could. It exists as a misunderstood piece of work, an ugly duckling of an album that had to wait for years before it got its due. Now, it’s held up on par with The Blue Album as Weezer’s best work, and some fans go as far as to call it Weezer’s masterpiece. But for all its ambition and ramshackle charm, Pinkerton is an album wed to a specific mindset and maturity level in a person’s life. In short, it’s the sort of album that you love at one point and become embarrassed about loving later on.

Pinkerton originally grew out of singer Rivers Cuomo’s ambition. Originally, the album was conceived as a space-rock concept album called Songs from the Black Hole, and Cuomo—who was studying classical composition at Harvard while writing songs for the album—was growing more and more frustrated with his own limitations as a musician. The songs that eventually formed the core of Pinkerton were far darker than anything previously associated with Weezer before then; the playful innocence of “In the Garage” and even early demos like “Let’s Sew Our Pants Together” were all but erased with this new batch of material. Instead, fans were treated to a detailed look at Cuomo’s personal life and insecurities from his time as a college student.

On paper, Pinkerton sounds like the most alienating album in the world. The cutesy image that the band cultivated in 1994 was mostly gone, replaced by a band singing about frustrated libidos and imagined relationships crushed by cruel, uncaring reality. Cuomo sets all of his sexual frustrations loose on each song, with topics ranging from casual groupie sex (“Tired of Sex”) to imagined long-distance lust (“Across the Sea”) covered in detail. Pinkerton is a relentlessly dour album, one that must have come as a surprise to casual and die-hard fans alike.

Frankly, it’s a testament to Cuomo’s skills as a pop songwriter that Pinkerton is in any way accessible or enjoyable. The band seemed determined to make this album an alienating experience with both their performances and their production. With Ric Ocasek gone from the production both, the band handles the task themselves, and this results in squealing guitars and a looser feel to the songs. At times, like on the bridge of “The Good Life” and most of “Getchoo,” it seems as if the band is doing their best to keep everything from falling apart right then and there.

Great pop music rarely comes from chaos, but Pinkerton somehow perseveres. Both singles (“El Scorcho” and “The Good Life”) rank among Weezer’s finest, and the penultimate track “Falling for You” actually offers a framework for turning this shaggy-dog production into something more appealing to a mainstream audience. Best of all, “Butterfly” perfectly ends the squealing chaos with a moment of affecting delicacy as Cuomo turns his self-flagellation into something more sympathetic. While it lacks the consistency of its predecessor, Pinkerton definitely doesn’t find Cuomo abandoning his natural knack for melody and hooks.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, though; the melody and arrangements aren’t what made Pinkerton a cause célèbre among sensitive teenage boys in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. The lyrics are what made this album resonate with people. The hopeless and bitter man who wrote “No Other One” (“She’s all I got / And I don’t wanna be alone”) and “Why Bother?” (“Why bother / It’s gonna hurt me / It’s gonna kill when you desert me”) took his personal demons and expressed them in a way in which thousands of hormonally frustrated kids could relate. After all, sexual frustration and angst are essential parts of being a teenager. But this is also where the appeal of Pinkerton is limited in a way that the appeal of The Blue Album isn’t. Its appeal is universal through adolescence, or for as long as the emotions expressed are still fresh; with the benefit of time and distance, Pinkerton’s impact wanes. It becomes a postcard from a point in one’s life where, say, you could feel justified in being devastated over someone not liking you back.

Like most of the things that you liked in high school, Pinkerton hasn’t really aged well. While Cuomo commits only one egregious sin (“Pink Triangle,” in which he gets mad at a girl for having the nerve to be a lesbian), it’s kind of easy to sympathize with his continued distaste for the record. Even if he managed to reach a wider audience than he originally thought, the album is clearly a raw nerve. It’s too much him from a time he would rather move past. Thus, when he returned with a revamped Weezer in 2000, he did so with songs that hinted at absolutely no subtextual meaning at all.

In recent years, Pinkerton has become a rallying point for Weezer fans decrying what they see as Cuomo’s emotionally blunted new material. This makes sense, given the depths Weezer has plumbed since returning (“Beverly Hills,” anyone?). Still, a return to the sort of bloodletting that occurred on Pinkerton probably isn’t the answer. Cuomo is older, and we’re all older, too. Sometimes it’s better to let the past be the past.

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