While initially a commercial flop, Pinkerton eventually became a cult classic, and is now one of Weezer’s most beloved albums.
On September 24, 1996, Weezer released their second album, two years after their debut. Named after the character B. F. Pinkerton from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, a Rolling Stone critics poll would call Pinkerton one of the worst albums of the year. Interestingly, in his 2003 ‘Debates of Artistic Value in Rock Music: A Case Study of the Band Weezer, 1994-2001’ essay presented to Harvard University, Jeff Rosenfeld notes that of the 40 per cent of respondents he contacted, none recall voting for the album – several, in fact, had positive things to say.
Still, time has been kinder to the album.
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo had made the move from Connecticut to Los Angeles to make it as a player in the world of hair metal. Detours followed, and instead, he and Weezer caught the wave of the alternative sound. Signed by Geffen and releasing their self-titled debut in 1994 (also known as The Blue Album), Seattle radio station KNDD began playing ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’ and Geffen, noting the local success, pushed the song for a nationwide audience to capitalise on the hot college radio circuit.
This was a curious year for music. A month prior to the album’s release, the body of Kurt Cobain was discovered. In other corners, Green Day breathed new life into punk with the release of their debut album Dookie, while Korn launched the nu-metal sound with their self-titled debut. Nine Inch Nails, meanwhile, helped bring industrial rock into the mainstream with the release of their third album, The Downward Spiral.
Despite releases from the likes of Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, Sponge, Soundgarden and Hole, music times were changing.
Sure, there was still, and would continue to be, a place for teenage angst. “It may be bleak,” Lisa Simpson would say (referring to the Smashing Pumpkins) in the 1996 Simpsons episode Homerpalooza, “but this music is really getting to the crowd.” Still, we were seeing a shift. A lo-fi pioneer, Pavement would receive greater attention with their second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and its single ‘Cut Your Hair’, while Beck became everyone’s favourite loser with the release of Mellow Gold. Weezer found a home. One might possibly look to an early Weezer t-shirt that read “If it’s too loud, turn it down” as a sign of the times.
The band toured relentlessly, picking up opening slots for Lush and Live, who had achieved worldwide success thanks to their third album Throwing Copper. Then, in September of ’95, the band went on hiatus. Two things occurred within this period. First, through the help of the album’s proceeds, a means was found for Cuomo to have his left leg lengthened. Measuring 44mm shorter than his right leg, doctors cut his femur in half and put his leg in a steel frame. According to Cuomo, he would turn some screws daily which would help to extend and increase the space in the bone’s break. (Cuomo wanted to be a pro athlete as a youngster, until a physical exam discovered the disparity between his leg lengths.)
The second was musical misgivings. Cuomo was dissatisfied with the music world and unsure of his place within it. So he applied to study classical composition at Harvard University, while bassist Matt Sharp, guitarist Brian Bell and drummer Patrick Wilson worked on other projects. Cuomo’s application read:
“Fans ask me all the time what it is like to be a rock star. I can tell that they are dreaming, as I dreamed, when I was a kid, of someday ruling the world with a rock band. I tell them the same thing I would tell any young rock-star-to-be … You will get lonely. You will meet two hundred people every night, but each conversation will generally last approximately thirty seconds, and consist of you trying to convince them that no, you do not want their underwear. Then you will be alone again, in your motel room. Or you will be on your bus, in your little space, trying to kill the nine hours it takes to get to the next city, whichever city it is. This is the life of a rock star.”
Pinkerton’s early life was envisioned as a rock opera titled Songs from the Black Hole. Demos were recorded at Cuomo’s family home over Christmas, with Cuomo performing every part himself. His surgery and the events leading to Harvard would help shape the shift of the album, so Songs was scrapped and Pinkerton was born. Some songs made the cut, while others have been released as b-sides and on compilations.
With the album good to go the band was ready to step out again, but they found that Pinkerton hit a few hurdles. Lead single ‘El Scorcho’ failed to attract solid airtime, while the stingy attention Cuomo initially gave the media following the release did no favours. There was also a reluctance to make the kind of videos for which the band had become known. This included turning down Spike Jonze for ‘El Scorcho’, who had previously worked with the band on ‘Undone’ and ‘Buddy Holly’. Then there was the security firm Pinkerton’s Inc., who filed a restraining order against Geffen just days before the album was released.
Later, rumours would circle that it caused the departure of the much-loved Matt Sharp.
The reception of the album hurt the band, and Cuomo. So much so that in a diary in 1997 he wrote: “This has been a tough year. It’s not just that the world has said Pinkerton isn’t worth a shit, but that the Blue album wasn’t either. It was a fluke. It was the [Buddy Holly] video. I’m a shitty songwriter.” Cuomo retreated and would become a recluse. It would also be some time before he would perform the songs again.
Time has a funny way about it. A much-loved song, album, movie or television show as a kid or teen can be a difficult watch as an adult. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true. Sometimes the things that don’t strike us when we are young resonate as we grow older. Rolling Stone came around. The second take review, written by Gavin Edwards, says: “The self-produced album sounds as raw as Cuomo’s lyrics, without any of the sheen that Ric Ocasek provided on the band’s debut. But what makes Pinkerton more than a blog entry is Cuomo’s unfailing gift for power pop.”
Cuomo, too, sounds as though he has found peace. In a 2021 interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe (via NME), he chose Pinkerton through a discussion about what album he would like to revisit with the orchestral approach of the band’s latest, OK Human. “Especially, I love the sound of my voice… it’s very low in the mix. I’d love to hear a remix of the vocal louder, but there’s just so much pain and vulnerability in my voice.”
It’s time for another spin; it’s time to fall in love and relate to this soul-bearing album once more.