25 Years Ago: Weezer Draw From Opera to Make Classic ‘Pinkerton’
Pinkerton took the Weezer sound to strange and magnificent heights.
The album — released on Sept. 24, 1996 — didn't hone in on the practiced precision of the alt-rock band's self-titled 1994 debut (better known as the Blue Album). Instead, it amplified the imperfections and the ambition: Pinkerton emerged from a dark place, as a young Rivers Cuomo grappled with sudden worldwide fame and recognition.
Weezer had become rock stars organically. After months of passing demos around Los Angeles, they got a record deal. Their Spike Jonze-directed videos were inescapable on MTV. Produced by the Cars' Ric Ocasek, their first LP sports poppy power chords and bright melodies, with hummable choruses often hiding the bleakness of Cuomo's lyrics. Whether a song was concerned with alcoholism, loneliness or nerdy pride, it carried a uniform sheen and practiced pop sensibility.
Listen to Weezer's 'Only in Dreams'
The album's epic-length closer "Only in Dreams" became a perfect showcase for what made the band special in those early years. The sweet sing-along harmonies of old love songs are wed with tongue-in-cheek rock 'n' roll. Cuomo's lyrical saga of an unrequited love is funny, self-deprecating and angry, too. Bolstering the song for all eight minutes, through to its exhilarating finale, is Matt Sharp's wonderfully melodic bass groove.
Listeners responded: The Blue Album eventually went platinum. But the band members were also left to deal with the aftereffects.
Cuomo, Weezer's front man and primary songwriter, was hit hardest by the fame. In the year after the album's release, he applied to Harvard, and in doing so wrote disdainfully about the rock-star lifestyle. In an essay released in his 2011 book, The Pinkerton Diaries, he noted that "[Fans] ask me all the time what it is like to be a rock star. ... I tell them the same thing I would tell any young rock-star-to-be. ... You will get lonely."
Many other excerpts, all written in the time before and during the album's release, express loneliness and even self-disgust.
Experiencing a meteoric rise to fame and studying classical music at Harvard simultaneously, Cuomo also needed to contend with extensive leg surgery throughout 1995. The tapes and demos that became Pinkerton emerged largely from this painful moment in his life, but they were meant for something else entirely.
In 2005, Cuomo explained to LA Weekly that his Harvard studies were the result of "a huge inferiority complex about being a rock musician. I thought my songs were really simplistic and silly, and I wanted to write complex, intense, beautiful music." This desire led to his concept for a Blue Album follow-up: a rock opera called Songs From the Black Hole.
Listen to Rivers Cuomo's Demo of 'Blast Off!'
As its title suggests, this project would be centered on the far reaches of outer space. For Cuomo, it would be a metaphor about his relationship with stardom and the creative limitations of rock 'n' roll. His artistic inclinations continued to veer into darker, more confessional territory, but the whimsical concept was abandoned, even after multiple songs were completed.
Even with the initial premise scrapped, the void imagery of its title worked its way into Pinkerton. Gloomy portraits of fame and meaningless sex, as well as frustration with relationships and the music business, abound. The album cover, an edited work by Japanese artist Hiroshige, shows a snowy town in the dead of night. Rather than create a fantastical rock opera, Cuomo and his bandmates simply constructed a sort of garage-rock homage to Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera Madama Butterfly.
Madama Butterfly concerns a Japanese woman's relationship with an American naval officer named Pinkerton, depicting her being used and ultimately left behind to kill herself. While Pinkerton the album offers no similar narrative hook, it does bear some similarities: a fixation on Japanese women and culture, and a lyrical focus on the ways men hurt women — only Pinkerton is told from the male perspective.
Listen to Weezer's 'No Other One'
Knowing that the material here was heavier, Cuomo even alerted the Weezer fan club as to the subject matter, telling them in a July 1996 letter that "[There] are some lyrics on the album that you might think are mean or sexist." His intention was for it to explore his "dark side."
Whether it's the waltzing, pleading "No Other One," the giving-up ode "Why Bother" or the lesbian crush callout "Pink Triangle," Cuomo was unafraid to throw anything pathetic or creepy in front of the public eye. As a consequence, the songs have real conviction. They are sincere and deeply self-critical, made even richer by the band's new sonic palette.
Pinkerton's first single was "El Scorcho," which demonstrated that aesthetic with a halting beat and the opening sounds of hooting and hollering, a far cry from what had worked for the band to that point. Cuomo's lyrics reek of desperation, following a protagonist who seeks the hand of a half-Japanese, cello-playing girl. His delivery, more theatrical than anything on the power-pop-leaning Blue Album, goes from fast-paced punk growl to a breathy description of reading the girl's diary.
Watch Weezer's 'El Scorcho' Video
With Ocasek no longer producing for the band, Weezer set out to record on their own. The intention was to better capture their live sound, so what Pinkerton lacks in technical purity, it makes up for with jagged beauty.
The narrative lynchpin of the album is its fifth track, "Across the Sea," perhaps Cuomo's finest hour as a singer. The song functions as a response to a piece of fan mail he received from a Japanese woman that gave him something to obsess over following a tough period of his life. Cuomo's character crushes the letter and fixates on the girl in his imagination, while the song grows in power and speed, only slowing down for a decisively quiet bridge that has him contemplating "becoming a monk."
Listen to Weezer's 'Across the Sea'
Because "El Scorcho" failed to pick up steam, and the other singles followed commercial suit, Weezer bore the label of having a sophomore slump. The brilliantly polished old-meets-new sound of the Blue Album couldn't sustain the group's more ambitious plans, at least here. While it failed to pick up much of a following outside of a small cult that recognized its greatness, that cult grew. And Pinkerton's financial and critical failures quickly gave way to reappraisal.
Cuomo himself quickly grew embarrassed by the album's personal nature, likening it in a 2001 profile to "getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself." The apocryphal wisdom suggests that after Pinkerton Cuomo never wanted to write a personal song again, as a combination of personal embarrassment and his new interest in mathematically crafting the perfect pop song.
Even in 2001, the album's star was growing. On one hand, it essentially sparked a five-year hiatus for the band that removed Sharp, whose work was so crucial to the Blue Album and Pinkerton, from future lineups. On another, it proved that power-pop aficionado Cuomo was capable of much more than catchy hooks and riffs. His operatic ambition, along with a series of debilitating circumstances, led to an album that was intense and personal and intensely rewarding, an empathetic ode to bad impulses and century-old operas.