Weezer has always been a mess of contradictions.
They’re an aggressive, metal-worshipping, chart-conquering power-pop band fronted by guys that look like they’re still in high school A/V club. The second they jumped from a major label (Geffen) to an acclaimed independent rock outfit (Epitaph), only then did frontman Rivers Cuomo begin aggressively working with pop songwriters like Desmond Child, Dan Wilson, and Linda Perry, having just flirted with them previously. They’ve put out three color-coordinated self-titled albums. In short, their career arc is far from typical.
Yet the most fascinating, intriguing, and endlessly-debated facet of Weezer’s entire career remains the group’s sophomore album, 1996’s Pinkerton. We virtually all know the story by now: after releasing a damn-near-flawless debut album of guitar-pop gems, tricked out with a gorgeous Ric Ocasek-production sheen and adorned with clever Spike Jonze-directed music videos, the group shortly launched to stardom on the strength of songs like “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)”. After touring like mad, the band then retreated into themselves a bit for the next album, producing the entire thing themselves, and churning out a gritty rock disc that featured a new, raw-nerve songwriting bent from Cuomo, the whole thing loosely inspired by Madame Butterfly. The sloppy, frenzied sound was a turnoff to many of the listeners that hopped on board the Blue Album trolley, and the album was a commercial disaster, no doubt aided by some particularly notably slanders it received from the critical community (hey there, Rolling Stone!).
What happened, next, however, was unexpected. The band members each went off to pursue their own interests over the years that followed, but while Weezer remained inactive, people were gradually stumbling upon Pinkerton by themselves, and discovering just how powerful, funny, and accomplished the disc was. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine accurately pointed out, when the group returned in 2001 with eponymous disc number two (a.k.a. The Green Album), it’s not like the band had to try hard to regain their fans. They actually gained more in the half-decade that followed Pinkerton‘s release than anyone could have anticipated, and as such they were greeted with open arms almost immediately. Not only did Weezer craft one of the biggest sleeper-hits of the decade, but said disc wound up soon defining the group at their creative zenith. Even though fans are evenly (and sometimes bitterly) divided about the music that Weezer is creating today, both camps generally find common ground with those first two albums, each disc’s reputation growing stronger with each passing year. To many, it’s like the group knocked out two back-to-back masterpieces without even breaking a sweat, and then spent their decade back in the spotlight trying hard as hell to recreate what once came naturally to them.. What’s unfortunate for the band is that even with their Top 40 intentions today, they will never, ever be able to free themselves from Pinkerton‘s legacy, both for better and for worse.
Listening to the remastered Deluxe Edition of the album some 14 years down the line, it’s amazing to hear how well the disc holds up. Opener “Tired of Sex” still packs a ton of kick, disorienting anyone expecting The Blue-r Album and setting the stage for the sonically abrasive, lyrically wry stunner that follows. Although Cuomo always had a knack for finding cute little analogies to hang his songs on (referring to his girl as Mary Tyler Moore in “Buddy Holly”, idolizing the Peter Criss poster he had hanging up “In the Garage”), the gritty environment of Pinkerton winds up stripping Cuomo of his ironic trappings. Suddenly, each line reads less like a character study and more like a biography, which — whether intended or not — gives the lyric sheet far more bite and gravitas. It feels like Cuomo is speaking to us directly, talking about his ambitions, his flaws, and his foibles in a candid, sometimes brutally honest way. Suddenly Cuomo’s small, throwaway details like noting how the possible relationship in “El Scorcho” would work because the girl in question would “keep my fingernails clean” now says more than they ever did before, as we begin filling in the holes in Cuomo’s stories with our own details, and suddenly the connection of listener to songwriter just got that much more personal.
Yet while details about Pinkerton being “grittier” and “alienating” seem to give newbies the impression that this album is free of pop hooks and the charm that got people into Weezer in the first place — this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although yes, Ocasek wouldn’t have allowed Cuomo’s glottal-shock scream at the start of “Tired of Sex” and the stomping guitar wail that opens “Getchoo” certainly sounded out of place on a rock radio station circa 1996, the group’s pop instincts were firmly intact, and songs like “Pink Triangle” and “The Good Life” rivaled the top sing-a-long moments that The Blue Album had to offer. Yet while some people thought that “Pink Triangle” was merely Weezer’s “lesbian song” and that “The Good Life” was simply about getting your life back on track, repeated listens revealed the emotional depths that Cuomo was plunging into, and it wasn’t long before “Tell me who’s that funky dude staring back at me?” turned out to be one of the most self-deprecating disses that Cuomo had ever served up. All of the comic water gurgling and goofy voices that the band peppered throughout the recording merely distracted from the fact that song-for-song, Pinkerton is one of the most lyrically acidic rock albums ever produced. Falling for a lesbian, obsessing over a fan’s letters, inventing entire relationships in your head before you even say “hello” for the first time — these were controversial, uncomfortable topics, and the fact that Cuomo was able to depict them with as much grace and humor as he did only added to Pinkerton‘s charm. Although Cuomo distanced himself from the disc years after the fact, few people could blame him: songwriters rarely get this honest with themselves, much less with the entire world watching.
So while no one is denying the staying power of Pinkerton in and of itself, one does have to question the wisdom of why all of this bonus “Deluxe Edition” ephemera was necessary. Yes, it’s nice to have all of the era-specific B-sides in one place (all of which are grand, although only the rushing “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly” had a chance of standing proudly in the album lineup), and the “undiscovered gems” are certainly worth keeping (“Getting Up and Leaving” is one of the band’s best-kept secrets, and there’s a reason why “Tragic Girl” caps Disc Two), but many of the Deluxe Edition tracks here prove to be repetitive, almost to the point of annoyance.
Sure, hearing an early live acoustic version of “Pink Triangle” gives insight into how the album was going to be received by the public at large (people scream with delight at the line “I’m dumb, she’s a lesbian”, but remain eerily silent when the band sings “We were good as married in my mind / But married in my mind is no good”), but between that, the radio remix, the Live at Y100 Sonic Session, and the version performed live at the Reading festival, you wind up hearing “Pink Triangle” no less than five times over the course of this double-disc set, and none of the acoustic renditions really give any additional insight into the creation of the album (same goes for “The Good Life”, which also has four additional iterations on top of the original). In fact, of the 26 bonus tracks featured here, only nine of them are songs that are not featured on the album in question — the rest are live tracks, alternate/acoustic/radio session takes, and random studio bits that really have no reason being here in the first place (we really waited 14 years to hear all 38 seconds of “Across the Sea Piano Noodles”?). Although a few stand out (the “alternate take” on “Butterfly” somehow manages to be even more emotionally crippling than the original), for the most part, we’re simply hearing the same few songs done over and over and over, reliving the album in different contexts but not learning much new about it.
At the end of the day, few people will doubt Pinkerton‘s power, and whether you’re hearing it for the first time or just for the first time in a few months, it remains as visceral a listen as ever. Yes, there have been better “Deluxe Edition” releases over the years (far better, in fact), but few albums get better than Pinkerton.