Weezer Pinkerton

The Lasting Legacy of Weezer’s Now-Beloved Commercial Flop ‘Pinkerton’

Weezer’s Pinkerton was released 25 years ago today and it was a critical and commercial flop. But in the intervening years, it’s become a beloved emo rock classic.

24 September 1996

Weezer‘s debut album was an instant success in summer 1994. It spawned three hit singles, with the last, “Say It Ain’t So”, hitting the airwaves a full year later. By this time, however, the band was already off the road and pondering their next move. What that move was going to be was uncertain, as frontman and songwriter Rivers Cuomo was experiencing burnout.

Cuomo had surgery in March 1995 to lengthen his left leg, which had always been significantly shorter than his right. Surgery was followed by months of recovery, painful physical therapy, and a steel brace on the leg. He and the band scrapped their planned second record, a concept album called Songs from the Black Hole, and Cuomo enrolled at Harvard to study classical composition. He spent a year taking classes, alternately enjoying and being frustrated by the anonymity of being a student.

During breaks from school, Weezer would reconvene to record songs with personal lyrics that spawned from Cuomo’s recent experiences. The result was Pinkerton, which hit stores on 24 September 1996, and was quickly labeled a commercial and critical disappointment. The record’s failure in the public’s eyes pushed Cuomo into an emotional spiral that made him reevaluate his entire process, and Weezer went into an extended hiatus afterward. When the band reemerged in the 21st century, they were a much brighter act, with little of Pinkerton’s introspection.

In the interim, however, Pinkerton had become a cult classic. An audience primarily outside of alternative rock radio and the MTV ecosystem responded to that same introspection, to Cuomo’s baring of his soul. The record’s ten songs grapple with loneliness, shyness, emotionally hollow sex, unhealthy attraction, and other topics that spoke directly to a particular type of young adult. Today it is often cited as one of the main influences on the emo rock genre that emerged around the turn of the millennium and is retroactively considered a proto-emo album.

Twenty-five years later, Pinkerton stands as an outlier in Weezer’s extensive catalog. It’s also near-universally regarded as one of the band’s two best albums. Sonically, it’s a much messier record than their sunny, Ric Ocasek-produced debut, but Cuomo’s knack for big hooks and crunchy guitars is just as prevalent. Still, Cuomo is less married to pop song structure here; not every track follows the traditional verse-chorus-verse pattern.

The album’s first single, “El Scorcho”, came out shortly before the entire record was released and is a superb preview for Pinkerton as a whole. The song opens with drummer Pat Wilson slowly hitting each of his drums before a shambling acoustic guitar riff begins. The introduction also includes the sound of someone gargling and guitarist Brian Bell saying “El scorcho!” and “Rock and roll!” in a squeaky falsetto voice. It’s ten seconds in, and it’s already stranger than anything on Weezer’s first album. The actual lyrics involve Cuomo fantasizing about a woman he’s attracted to: “God damn, you half-Japanese girls / Do it to me every time / Oh, the redhead said you shred the cello / And I’m Jell-O, baby.”

At the 43-second mark, the band hit the first chorus. The music expands with thundering distorted guitars and a full drumbeat, and Cuomo, Bell, and bassist Matt Sharp sing the refrain together. “I’m a lot like you, so please / Hello, I’m here, I’m waiting / I think I’d be good for you / And you’d, be good, for me.” Interestingly, the three voices are not perfectly in sync, which adds to the track’s raw quality.

Throughout “El Scorcho”, interesting things are happening. When Cuomo is singing on his own, he sounds shy and unsure, but when his two bandmates join in, the vocals are brash and confident. The switch between acoustic and electric guitars mirrors this personality shift. All the while, Wilson and Sharp are holding it together as the rhythm section, but their drums and bass also have room to add flourishes of their own.

It’s a fascinating track and a great song, but it turned out to be a terrible single. Regardless of whether it was the band or their record label, DGC, who decided “El Scorcho” was the band’s best chance for a hit, it failed to gain traction at alternative radio. Superficially, it resembles “Undone (The Sweater Song)”, but its subject of shyness around a woman may not be great radio fodder. The video, a performance clip of the band in a ballroom surrounded by a wide variety of lighting, is interesting, but it’s not visually striking like the “Undone” or “Buddy Holly” videos. As a result, “El Scorcho” mostly got played on MTV’s alternative rock-centric 120 Minutes show on Sunday nights between midnight and 2:00 am.

The label reacted to this flop by quickly releasing “The Good Life” as a follow-up single only six weeks later. This video features the band performing in a studio setting, with typical silly moments from Wilson and Sharp. These bits are intercut with the adventures of a pizza shop employee played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who would find fame on the tv show 24 a few years later. It’s a solid clip, but it also failed to move the needle at MTV. As a radio single, the track went nowhere, barely cracking the Billboard Modern Rock chart with a peak position of #32 (out of 40).

As a track, though, “The Good Life” is a strong rocker that gets into Cuomo’s isolation at Harvard and recovery from leg surgery. The song is driven by a thumping beat punctuated by Sharp’s thick low-end bass. The big chorus where Cuomo sings, “I don’t wanna be an old man anymore / Been a year or two since I was out on the floor… It’s time I got back to the good life,” is a solid one. The song also features a mid-song deceleration with a guitar solo that swoops and cries like a seagull. The acceleration that follows this solo back to the final chorus is very effective.

DGC halfheartedly put out “Pink Triangle” as a last-gasp third single in the spring of 1997. It didn’t make the charts anywhere and never even got a video. Pinkerton was likely a lost cause with the public in general by this point but releasing the song about a man falling in love with a lesbian was not a great move. Even if it had been a hit in some parts of the US and around the world, in 1997 many areas wouldn’t have played a song that mentioned the word “lesbian” on general principle.

“Pink Triangle” is a very ’90s song in how it deals with sexual orientation. It’s also very much a song from Cuomo’s perspective. In this case, it’s another example of Rivers being attracted to a person from afar and then finding an excuse for why a relationship would never work. Here he belatedly discovers that the woman is prominently displaying a symbol for homosexuality and bemoans that she was never available to him in the first place. It’s a bright rocker and a good song, and the highlight is Cuomo’s self-excoriating chorus, “I’m dumb / She’s a lesbian,” forcing the rhyme.

The rest of Pinkerton explores many similar ideas. It opens with “Tired of Sex”, where Cuomo describes being unfulfilled by nights of sex with a series of different partners. The track begins with several seconds of guitar feedback, followed by loose, echoing drums and then a heavily processed guitar that could almost be a synth. Once the song passes the first chorus, Cuomo is letting loose with loud, wordless shouts, and the second verse finds him on the edge of screaming the lyrics. It also features a fiery, unhinged guitar solo and a powerful bridge that leads right into a wordless coda reprising the song’s main melody. Lyrically, it might seem like a song about having too much sex is a mile away from Pinkerton’s other themes, but it’s pointedly about searching for a real emotional attachment. That’s right in line with the rest of the album.

“Getchoo” is a harsh, buzzing rocker about a crumbling relationship. The song starts with Cuomo getting a clue. “This is beginning to hurt / This is beginning to be serious,” after which he admits to mistakes but begs, “Please, baby, say it’s not too late.” In the bridge, Cuomo moans, “I can’t believe / That you’ve done to me / What I did to them.” That leads into the crashing, noise-filled opening of “No Other One”, a song with a distinctive 3/4 time signature. The track calms down after the intro and features Cuomo singing near the top of his range, with Sharp layering falsetto backing vocals a full octave above.

After that, the blistering power-pop track “Why Bother?” serves as Pinkerton’s first climax. It’s a tight 2:08 long, and it could easily have been a single. The big sing-along chorus, “Why bother / It’s gonna hurt me / It’s gonna kill when you desert me”, is a glimpse into the fatalistic attitude that Cuomo carries through most of the rest of the album. The guitars slash and crash throughout, while Sharp occasionally jumps up an octave on his bass, providing a tasty melodic counterpoint. It’s one of the album’s best songs and has been a bit overlooked over the years.

“Across the Sea” marks the record’s midpoint, serving as a de facto ballad even though it grows into a pretty straight-ahead rocker. But it opens quietly, with a piano (and faint flute) intro, followed by a first verse that begins with just Cuomo, the piano, and a single distorted guitar. The piano disappears when the full band comes in halfway through the verse, but it retains its gentle mood throughout. In this one, Cuomo obsesses over a fan letter he received from a Japanese teenager. There is an air of creepiness here, but there is also self-awareness that this is a fantasy. There’s a verse that escalates quickly, “I wonder what clothes you wear to school / I wonder how you decorate your room / I wonder how you touch yourself and curse myself for being across the sea.” Later, though, he admits, “I could never touch you / I think it would be wrong.” This song and its emotional conflict is a perfect example of the bare honesty that helped Pinkerton find its cult fanbase.

After that, the record hits the three singles, “The Good Life”, “El Scorcho”, and “Pink Triangle”, before landing on its final rocker, the noisy “Falling For You”. This track begins with a gently picked guitar from Bell and a simple melodic guitar lead from Cuomo, but after about ten seconds the distortion kicks in. Cuomo sings, “Holy cow I think I’ve got one here / Now just what am I supposed to do?” Over the course of the song he frets about a long list of foibles, both from himself and his love interest. She says “like” too much, he’s too old for her, maybe she’s worth giving up being a rock star for,  and what does an accomplished cello player like her see in “little old three-chord me”. From the lyrics, it seems like Cuomo may have actually successfully started dating the woman from “El Scorcho.” However, he only made it through a year at Harvard. Presumably, some of the angst of the song comes from him struggling with the idea of leaving the school to return to Weezer and having to leave her behind.

Pinkerton closes with “Butterfly”, its only full ballad. Cuomo strums an acoustic guitar and sings about catching a butterfly and putting it in a jar, only to find it dead the next morning. As the song continues, he conflates the butterfly incident with an actual human relationship, finishing out with, “I told you I would return / When the robin makes its nest / But I ain’t never coming back / I’m sorry / I’m sorry / I’m sorry.” Musically, “Butterfly” is a gentle, soothing way to wrap up the album. But lyrically it finishes with guilt and recrimination. There’s no happy ending, not even a catharsis. That lack of emotional equilibrium speaks a lot to how a lot of teenagers and young adults feel at that age, and it’s probably helped turn the record into such a beloved classic.

Revisiting Pinkerton in 2021 I was struck by its intentional messiness and noisiness in a way I never was back when I bought it as a college student at midnight on 24 September 1996. At the time it was just the new Weezer album and I loved it. The songwriting was great and I wasn’t put off by the sonics or subject matter at all. For a long time, I could never figure out how it flopped with the public or critics. Twenty-five years down the road my opinion on the record’s quality hasn’t changed, but it’s easier to see in hindsight how different this was from their shiny Blue Album debut.

I was also struck by how much Matt Sharp adds to this album. His bass playing is distinctive, adding melodic bits throughout the record and occasionally putting down a thundering bassline that really fills out a song. Along with Brian Bell, the backing vocals are an essential part of these tracks and the way they don’t exactly line up with Cuomo helps give the album a unique feel. Sharp’s departure after this record combined with Cuomo’s retreat from personal songwriting essentially served to excise the Pinkerton influence from Weezer’s future material.

Weezer has subsequently released 13 more albums of original material, so Cuomo hasn’t entirely avoided personal subjects in his songwriting. It’s not his default mode, though. A song like 2021’s “Playing My Piano”, literally about Rivers playing the piano during quarantine while his family is upstairs, just doesn’t have the same kind of impact. Pinkerton remains a special record. If the band had ever tried to replicate, it’s possible they would’ve ended up dulling its impact.

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