Welcome to the second edition of Weezer: What Went Wrong, where I, your intrepid investigator, break down each of Weezer’s albums in the hopes of discovering just what led to the downfall of one of the ‘90’s greatest bands. In this segment I will be focussing on the black swan of Weezer’s discography – Pinkerton.
When Pinkerton was released in 1996, the music world was positively frothing with anticipation. Only two years earlier, Weezer had exploded onto the scene with feel-good tracks like ‘Buddy Holly’ and powerful rock anthems like ‘Say It Ain’t So.’ Surely, Pinkerton would bring more of the quirky, self-deprecating, fist pumping goodness that their début had so amply provided? Nope. Pinkerton was a turn to the dark side for Weezer. It was aggressive and unsettling, like when Anakin confessed to Padme that he slaughtered all of those sand people, except that this was entertaining and emotionally impactful. But not everyone saw it that way in its early days. The vast majority of critics lambasted the album: the ever-accurate (ahem) readers of Rolling Stone voted it the 3rd worst album of the year1, and even Cuomo himself claimed that it was “[…] a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away.”2 And then, less than a decade later, the whole damn world had done a 180 spin (not quite as impressive as the notoriously complicated 1080 spin, but it’s something all the same): the readers of Rolling Stone reneged their verdict and proudly proclaimed Pinkerton to be the 16th best album of all time3, Cuomo decided it was “[…] super-deep, brave, and authentic,”4 and Metacritic has the Deluxe Edition sitting at an astonishing 100/1005. So what gives? Why all of the take-backsies? I have no idea. Someone should write that article (I’m looking at you Brennan), it would probably be awesome. Instead, I am focussing on why this album is painfully good – in fact, better than The Blue Album – and how it fits into the confusing shift in Weezer’s career, in which they went from producing nothing but gold, to producing nothing but shit; the famed Reverse Midas Touch Syndrome (coined by me, right now).
In the first segment of this series, I argued that The Blue Album was based upon dualism; that the album’s tracks came in the form of couplings. I said that the first pairing of songs, ‘No One Else’ and ‘The World Has Turned and Left Me Here,’ told the story of a man who was obsessive, demanding, selfish, and too oblivious of his own behaviour to know that these qualities are what led to the loss of his girlfriend. Pinkerton takes that concept and runs with it. All ten tracks come together to form a concept album that tells the story of a continually frustrated douchebag who just cannot figure out how a relationship is supposed to work. Now, before you get all Internety on me and yell “Pinkerton is based on Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, you ill-bred cretin. Proceed to fornicate yourself with uproarious vigor” (the frequenters of opera forums are very well spoken, probably), I would like to suggest that these interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The album is littered with references to the opera and the themes are very similar, but ultimately, Pinkerton tells its own story. I’m here to talk about that. So grab some headphones and a lyrics booklet, because this is going to be intense.
The beginning of the album offers characterisation in the form of four vignettes, each one revealing a little bit more about our speaker and his inability to have a functional relationship with any woman that he meets. ‘Tired of Sex’ starts us off with a moderately disturbing look into the speaker’s sex-life. This is a man that has no problem getting laid, but he isn’t interested in the purely physical. He wants more than sex (he is, shall we say, tired of it); he wants love. But this isn’t your typical, sappy “I’m ready to settle down” song; this is an honest look at a man’s loneliness and the frustration he experiences when replacing true companionship with meaningless sex. In the verses, the speaker complains of his inability to find love despite the staggering amount of girls he looks under for it. What makes this a truly engaging song, rather than just a coarse list of girls he’s slept with, is his brutal honesty – he knows that he is using these women for nothing more than selfish pleasure, and he hates himself for it: “I’m sorry. Here I go. I know I’m a sinner, but I can’t say no.” In the bridges, he goes on to list his conquests, but his bragging quickly becomes lamenting as his lists are chased by calls for love, for example: “Monday night I’m making Jen, / Tuesday night I’m making Lynn, / Wednesday night I’m making Jasmine, / oh, why can’t I be making love come true?” It’s typical Weezer silliness in that it plays on the two meanings of “make,” but Rivers pulls out some poetic magic here in that the bridges lead up to choruses that don’t feature any lyrics. The bridges build up to the question of whether or not the speaker will find the love he so desperately seeks, and the speaker never gets an answer (well, one time he gets a guitar solo, but still, no love). The build up leaves the listener frustrated, just like the speaker. Pretty slick, Rivers.
The music is just as impressive as the lyrics. The opening 35 seconds alone are enough to show that the song is dripping with as much desperation as the speaker’s chaffed and weary body. 0:00 – 0:06 is just inconstant squealing feedback – a genuinely displeasing sound that is incapable of settling. 0:06 – 0:14 introduces drums via a count off, not with soft stick clacks, but with clanging ride shots that then dive into a beat featuring heavy use of crash cymbals. Along with the drums, we are presented with keyboard, but not the playful vibes of ‘Buddy Holly.’ While the riff we hear is fairly upbeat, it comes in on the second beat of the phrase and lingers on just a bit too long, causing the second phrase to start on the third beat. And so, a seemingly innocent keyboard riff is turned into an instrument of frustration – it just will not settle properly. 0:14 – 0:22 introduces a cheerful but distorted bass riff that helps to ground the song while underscoring the awkwardness of the keyboard’s timing. From 0:22 – 0:35 we see the keyboard end its melody on a chord, that when combined with vibrato and a volume swell, sounds like uncomfortable feedback. It also introduces vocals, with Rivers crooning the lines, “I’m tired, so tired. I’m tired of having sex.” Harmonized backup vocals follow with a reiteration of “so tired,” making the whole thing sound like a morbidly depressing Supremes song. Finally, at 0:30, a distorted guitar rings out with a single chord that swells briefly before fading out completely. Everything is awkward, inconstant, or just kind of ugly, while somewhere beneath it all sits a song that wants to be sung. Every inch of it reflects the feelings of frustration and desire expressed in the lyrics, and it only gets more powerful as it goes. The pick-ups to each bridge are distressing moans that are equal parts orgasmic cry and woeful sob, the bridges consist entirely of screeching feedback clashes between guitars and keys, pounding drums bring a sense of urgency, and the chorus consists of the same bass and drum parts as the verse (but much louder) while Rivers simply screams. There is not a single pleasant note in the song until the energetic outro, and even then it’s only pleasant in comparison, allowing the song to end on something of a hopeful note. Maybe the speaker will find love after all!
Nope. Can’t do it. In ‘Getchoo,’ it seems that the speaker tried to make it work with one of the girl’s he had been fooling around with, but the opening verse shows us that things didn’t work out: “This is beginning to hurt. / This is beginning to be serious. / It used to be a game, / now it’s a crying shame, / ‘cause you don’t want to play around no more.” But before you start feeling too sympathetic, we should remember that this is a guy that was leading on at least six different girls at one time. The speaker states, “I can’t believe / what you’ve done to me. / What I did to them, / you’ve done to me,” showing that he has had a taste of his own medicine; she had others waiting in the wings. Instead of simply throwing in the towel and trying his luck with someone new, the speaker shows that his obsessive tendencies apply to more than just sex, as he repeatedly yells “Getchoo, uh huh” in lieu of a rational, or even grammatically accurate, reaction to his circumstances.
Once again, the music does an excellent job of reflecting the pain of the speaker. The verses are standard Weezer, if somewhat downcast in tone, but the choruses are ten straight seconds of Nirvana-fuelled grunge, complete with squeals of feedback and hammering drum fills. From the first kick of the bass drum it is apparent that this song is in the running for the heaviest and dirtiest song that Weezer had ever done. But what really gets the job done is the song’s conclusion. The final twenty seconds of the song feature the same tension-inducing progression from the song’s opening, while the backup vocals repeat the phrase “this is beginning to hurt,” and Rivers lets loose some disturbingly pained yelps that are immediately reminiscent of the orgasmo-screams in ‘Tired of Sex.’ Someone please get this man a healthy relationship. Or at least some pills, or something.
With ‘No Other One,’ Weezer shows the same degree of calculation and attention to detail that makes ‘Tired of Sex’ a kind of disturbing masterpiece. The song skips ahead in the speaker’s life, showing that he did manage to getch-her, but that their relationship is dysfunctional at best and totally emotionally bereft at worst. Neither of them is able to get over their dubious pasts, so neither is capable of trusting the other. Despite the evident failure of this relationship, the speaker is unwilling to break things off – he can’t stand to be alone again. This is made abundantly clear in the opening verse, as the speaker states, “My girl’s a liar / but I’ll stand beside her. / She’s all I’ve got / and I don’t want to be alone.” What’s worse than the fact that the speaker is willing to shackle himself to this sham of a relationship, is that he still has a sex drive to rival most rabbits. In the chorus, the speaker candidly admits to wanting to cheat on his girl, and claims that he is only kept in place by a debilitating fear of the loneliness that would follow if she left him for it (“No, there is no other one. / No, there is no other one. / I can’t have any other one; / though I would, now I never could with one”). This guy has some serious issues, and if he isn’t careful, he will soon be spending his nights vigorously masturbating with sandpaper, just so he can feel something.
So that’s the “disturbing” part, the “masterpiece” part is in their handling of the music. The track sounds like a drunken version of a song from The Blue Album. It has all of the trappings of their first album’s work – a slow verse driven by strong bass and arpeggiated guitars, grandiose rock moments, strong vocal harmonies, and even some hilarious instances of falsetto quirkiness – but it is tainted by the feedback squeals and discomforting howls from the opening tracks of Pinkerton. It’s almost as if the speaker is trying to act like everything is back to normal; that this is just a regular Weezer song again, except that it isn’t – desperation and frustration continue to bubble below its surface in the form of these recurring motifs. To prove this point, take a look at the second verse and chorus of the song. From 1:24 to 1:36, Weezer gives you their classic sound – a simple but effective guitar riff accents the vocals from the left ear while a strong bass riff does most of the heavy lifting. At 1:36, a second guitar enters from the right, playing a finger-waggling trill until the next phrase starts at 1:38. Immediately, that trilling guitar cuts out, seemingly suppressed by the left guitar playing an arpeggio with slightly more volume than it had a moment earlier, along with the introduction of the hi-hat. It’s like the feelings of discontent began to rise and were quickly swept back under the rug. The returned classic sound continues until 1:47, when the right guitar returns with a feedback squeal that is then cut off as the chorus begins at 1:52. The chorus goes along according to plan until 2:00, when the feedback returns, this time in the left ear. Rather than swelling, it maintains its volume and simply lingers until the chorus ends. These little nuances are what make this song brilliant; every aspect has been carefully planned to create an effect of familiarity that belies discontent.
Finally, we come to the end of Pinkerton’s opening act, ‘Why Bother?’ The lyrics jump ahead in time, showing that the speaker’s disastrous relationship comes to an end, and that he has now entered a whole new stage of depression – defiance. The speaker has given up trying to find love because he finds that it only ever ends in heartbreak. The verses speak of various potential relationships ended before they could even start (“I’ve known a lot of girls before, / what’s the harm in knowing one more? / Maybe we could even get together. / Maybe you could break my heart next summer?”), while the chorus shows that the speaker is all done taking chances (“Why bother? It’s gonna hurt me; / it’s gonna kill when you desert me. / This happened to me twice before – / it won’t happen to me anymore”). He sounds bitter and jaded, but most importantly, he sounds resolute. He is done with women, damn it. Done!
Musically, this song is classic Weezer through and through. There are no hints of the motifs we have come to associate with frustration – no instances of swelling feedback, no sexually frustrated yelps – just good old fashioned rock. It seems that the speaker is finally gaining some strength and stability, even if the cost is giving up all hope of happiness.
And so ends the first part of Pinkerton’s story. The speaker is revealed to be obsessive, depressed, and utterly incapable of forming a relationship that isn’t tainted by the ravenous appetite of his man-dragon. Relationship after relationship has failed, bringing him to the decision that it would be easier to just give up and “keep whackin’.”
The second act begins with ‘Across the Sea,’ in which the speaker receives a fan-letter from a young Japanese girl and he begins to change his mind; maybe he doesn’t have to swear off all women, just American ones. The speaker goes on to articulate his feelings in frighteningly candid and honest lines: “They don’t make stationary like this where I’m from, / so fragile, so refined. / So I sniff and I lick your envelope / and fall to little pieces every time. / 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.” As creepy as these lyrics can sound, it is actually a testament to Rivers’ poetic strength. He makes you feel embarrassed, as if you were reading someone else’s diary and hit a section that you know they wouldn’t have wanted you to read. It’s strong writing, and it’s immediately clear that the speaker is developing some romantic (okay, maybe the wrong word) feelings for this girl. There are two key problems with this potential relationship though, both of which are articulated by the chorus: “Why are you so far away from me? / I need help and you’re way across the sea. / I could never touch you, / I think it would be wrong. / I’ve got your letter; / you’ve got my song.” Problem one: she lives in Japan. Problem two: she is much younger than the speaker (she may be eighteen, but she is still a schoolgirl). The first problem is only a temporary one – it could always be solved by a plane ticket – but it holds potential deeper problems: would she still be interested in him if she met him in person? Would they be able to get over the differences in their cultures? Would it be awkward if they watched Pearl Harbor together? (The answer to the latter is clearly yes, if for no other reason than that Ben Affleck has the acting prowess of a sack of potatoes.) The second problem is an ethical one: would it be wrong for an older man with apparent star power to work his charms on an impressionable young girl?
Naturally, the immense shift in the tone of the lyrics is backed by drastically different instrumentals to anything we have heard so far on the album. The track opens with a soft and fragile duet between a flute and a piano that ends with a tangible two whole seconds of silence. It’s a much more delicate set of sounds than anything else Pinkerton has given us so far, and yet the anguish from the first act is not completely forgotten – the opening note is a discordant jumble of notes on the piano hidden way back in the mix, and the serene moment of silence is broken by a single distorted guitar chord. Also, in the single most creepy moment in Weezer history, Rivers takes awkward sex-singing to new places on the mildly perverse lines “So I sniiiiiffffff, and I liiiick / your envelope.” It’s fucking paper and glue, man, chill out. The purpose of these hints of frustration are to act as reminders of the speaker’s mental state, of his fears, his hopes, and his obsessive tendencies, but they remain in the background of the song – this is finally a time of happiness and hope. Rivers’ vocals are, for the most part, sweet and chipper (the melodies beg you to join in) and the powerful pop rock guitars are accompanied by piano riffs and well executed rhythms from the bass and drums. In a particularly bold move, the middle of the song slows down, and lets clean guitar and piano take the foreground for a moment. Things have clearly changed, and seemingly for the better.
Next, we have ‘The Good Life.’ If Pinkerton were a movie, this song would be played as the speaker, letter still in hand, opens his eyes wide in revelation, rushes to the door, stops briefly to grab his coat, and then proceeds to hurriedly hail a cab to the airport. It is the moment in the story when the speaker pulls himself out of his depression, stands tall and yells “morality be damned! I’m getting in there while she’s young!” The lyrics of the song show the speaker transform from a defeated mound of unwashed clothes on a couch, surrounded by Cheetos crumbs and porn magazines, into a man willing to buy a one-way ticket to a foreign land if it will grant him a shot at true love. It’s inspiring really. The verses show the speaker reflecting on his pathetic state, as he says, “When I look in the mirror, / I can’t believe what I see. / Tell me who’s that funky dude / staring back at me? / Broken, beaten down, / can’t even get around. / Without an old-man cane / I’d fall and hit the ground. / Shivering in the cold, / I’m bitter and alone.” It’s a strong moment of development for the speaker, and its positivity is highlighted by a change in vocabulary – “funky dude” is a phrase with too much spritely nonchalance for the dark opening of the album. Even when he stares his past in the face, his words bubble with a new-found spunkiness: “I’m a pig, I’m a dog, / so excuse me if I drool. / I ain’t gonna hurt nobody, / I ain’t gonna cause a scene, / I just need to admit that I want sugar in my tea.” The chorus takes things to another level, as the speaker sings, “I don’t want to be an old man anymore. / It’s been a year or two since I was out on the floor, / shaking booty, making sweet love all the night; / it’s time I got back to the good life.” He’s pulling himself out of his rut, and he’s ready to take on the world (or at least Japan).
As you might expect, this song’s instrumentals are boisterous and fun. Off-beat guitars and bass provide a hip-swinging groove, while a fantastic riff in the bridge forces you to involuntarily air-guitar. Everything is good, old-fashioned pop rock until the 2:25 mark, when Weezer throws us another moment of subtle brilliance. The rocking goodness seems to get out of hand as the key changes and a frantic guitar solo enters the scene out of absolutely nowhere. It is a bit jarring, almost as if the speaker’s excitement has become uncontrollable, but it doesn’t last long. Fifteen seconds later, the loud and messy guitar solo gracefully transitions to the softer tones of slide guitar, piano and xylophone. It is a genuinely powerful build and release that seems to be a microcosm of the speaker’s journey from chaotic anguish to revitalizing hope. I’m telling you, every single moment of this album was carefully crafted to allow a synergy between music and lyrics.
And so, after almost twenty minutes, we hit the story’s climax. ‘El Scorcho’ is finally it – the moment when the speaker meets the girl of his dreams, and expresses his undying love for her. Lyrically, it is just as confessional and awkwardly honest as everything that came before it, but now it comes across as endearing instead of creepy (mostly). The speaker sounds genuinely romantic as he confides, “I wish I could get my head out of the sand, / ‘cause I think we’d make a good team, / and you would keep my fingernails clean. / But that’s just a stupid dream that I won’t realize / ‘cause I can’t even look in your eyes / without shakin’. And I ain’t fakin’: / I’ll bring home the turkey if you bring home the bacon.” I don’t have the slightest idea what that last line is about (some kind of turkey club lovewhich?), but it doesn’t even matter. He knows, and he means it. It is the perfect mix of honest emotion and ridiculous silliness – a perfect embodiment of Weezer. The chorus uses trochaic metre to reinforce the mindset of the speaker (forceful and confident at first, but ultimately vulnerable), while it puts forth some of the greatest lines in the history of love songs: “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.” You can practically see him awkwardly stumbling through his words in the first line; you can feel how nervous he is. It’s a remarkably good song. Seriously, it is very hard to write a love song that doesn’t sound cliché or sappy, but Rivers pulls it off without flaw.
And it’s not just in the lyrics – it’s in the combination of words and music. For example, take the bridge that precedes the verse we looked at earlier. The lyrics read: “How stupid is it? I can’t talk about it, / I have to sing about it, and make a record of my heart. / How stupid is it? Won’t you give me a minute, / just come up to me and say hello to my heart. / How stupid is it? For all I know you want me too, / and maybe you just don’t know what to do. / Or maybe you’re scared to say: ‘I’m falling for you.’” Those are probably the sappiest lines in the song, and their emotional charge is presented musically by a frenzied switch to double-time, but they are immediately followed by an intentionally awkward guitar solo. It sounds clumsy and strange, like the way a teenager looks after their first growth spurt, and it prevents the song from cranking the sappiness into Phil Collins territory. In fact, the whole song is a bit goofy. The main guitar riff is playful and bouncy while Rivers’ vocals run powerful and impassioned as a contrast. It is not at all surprising that this song had such a powerful impact on the emo scene.
That brings us to the end of the album’s second act. The speaker has put it all on the line, and we all eagerly await this little Japanese girl’s response. We get it in the form of ‘Pink Triangle,’ but the answer isn’t immediately clear. According to the lyrics, the speaker was barking up the wrong tree all along: “I’m dumb, she’s a lesbian. / I thought I had found the one. / We were good as married in my mind, / but married in my mind’s no good. / Oh, pink triangle on her sleeve, / let me know the truth, let me know the truth.” Now, anyone reading this aloud to a group of friends (you all do that right?) has probably already had one of their assclown friends yell out “’Pink triangle on her sleeve’ is a reference to Nazi concentration camps. They used to make gay people wear them as identification!” Brilliantly done, Captain Mediocrity. Pink triangles were indeed used to identify gay men, but there is very little indication that lesbians were ever specifically targeted for concentration camps, and thus they were never designated an official colour. Currently, the pink triangle has been reclaimed by gay rights movements, but lesbians have opted for the black triangle associated with “asocial” prisoners. Also, the triangle badges were not worn on the sleeve, but on the chest, so either Rivers was as bad at History as your friend there, or he intended for the speaker to be misinterpreting things. Based on how impressively well-made the album has been so far, let’s go with the last one. So, what do we have then? Just a girl who happens to have a pink triangle on her jacket sleeve? Probably, yes. Let’s take a minute to remember how obsessive this speaker is – he was so addicted to sex that he was willing to hurt dozens of women to get himself what he wanted; he then became so adamantly revolted by loneliness that he forced himself to stay in a broken relationship; when that didn’t work out, he swore off women entirely; and then, at the slightest hint of attraction from a girl, he jumped on a plane and started singing at her in the streets. He has, to put it mildly, a tendency to take things to the extreme. So, if this little Japanese girl (who merely wrote a fan-letter to her favourite band) happened to refuse his advances, would it really be surprising to anybody if his immediate response was “Well, she’s gotta be a lesbian. There’s no fucking way anyone could turn down ‘El Scorcho.’”
He even hints at his inability to separate reality from fiction in the first verse: “When I’m stable long enough, / I start to look around for love. / See a sweet in floral prints – / my mind begins the arrangements. / But when I start to feel that pull, / turns out I just pulled myself. / She would never go with me, / were I the last girl on Earth.” It looks like this isn’t the first time this has happened to him, and his logic dictates that if the pull he felt wasn’t really there, that she is therefore incapable of being attracted to men. This is where the speaker starts to really sound a lot like the guy from ‘No One Else’ and ‘The World Has Turned and Left Me Here.’ And the rabbit hole goes deeper – the name of the album is “Pinkerton,” which can be etymologically interpreted to mean “Town of Pinker” in which “Pinker” is a person who makes things pink (isn’t verbing fun?). Using the speaker’s misunderstanding of pink triangles, a pinker could then easily be a man who sees every woman as a lesbian. The signs are all there – this guy is constantly frustrated by women, he is never capable of having a functional relationship, and so he just snaps into a mindset which implies that he is not the problem. I have met plenty of less extreme cases in real life, and chances are, you have too.
Now, I know that there are scores of you out there continuing to write out very eloquent comments regarding Puccini’s opera, but please, just take a deep breath and calm down. We will get back to the opera. Relax, dude, you’re hyperventilating.
Back to the song. Musically, ‘Pink Triangle’ goes along as you might expect. It begins with incredible delicacy, as a beautiful clean guitar part plays off against a slide guitar, all accented by a xylophone. These are all elements of beauty and grace we have already seen in the second act of the album (in the same way that feedback squeals and sex-yells were elements of frustration in the first). In the background, we hear a volume swell (perhaps betraying the truth regarding the girl’s sexual orientation) until distorted guitars enter the scene with bass and drums. The opening tune returns as a bridge and the slide guitar returns a couple of times throughout, but the majority of the song is strong, upbeat Weezer. The normality of the song is representative of the speaker’s mindset – don’t forget that he is in denial here. At the heart of things, everything is wrong, but on the surface, it’s fine.
As may be expected, the speaker is now reaching his breaking point, and thus, we get ‘Falling For You.’ The lyrics take the form of a horrifyingly awkward set of conversations between the speaker and the Japanese girl. Each verse begins with a kind of kindergarten-swear (“Holy cow,” “Holy moly,” and “Ah, sweet goddamn”) as if he is Ned Flandersing his way through his frustration, and they go on to showcase his various attempts at winning her back. This ranges from honesty (“I’ve got a number of irrational fears / that I’d like to share with you”), to trying to make her feel jealous (“But I do like you and another one”), to creepy euphemistic poetry (“I’m a burning candle; you’re a gentle moth / teaching me to lick a little bit kinder”). The chorus provides us with an honest perspective, as the speaker simply lays his cards on the table and hopes: “I’m shaking at your touch. / I like you way too much. / My baby, I’m afraid I’m falling for you.” In the second act, the speaker’s honesty generated sympathy, but now it just sounds embarrassing. The speaker is a shattered shell of his former self, and he doesn’t know whether he should just be himself or play it cool. The result is that he fails miserably at both, and we are forced to watch through the spaces between our fingers.
Musically, this is a hideous song. It lacks all of the pop sensibility present in the immediately preceding tracks, and the contrast is glaring – and intentional. The song opens with sparkly, clean guitars and a voiceover of someone speaking an Asian language (apparently this was radio interference picked up by Rivers’ amplifier during recording that was kept due to its thematic relevance). This is followed by some standard distorted guitars and drums in the verse, but we don’t get far before the motifs of frustration return. Squeals of feedback pepper the song, and they sound angrier than usual. These are not single high pitched notes that swell and then break into a chord; these are grotesque anomalies that sound shockingly similar to the robot sex-sounds of dial-up Internet. The choruses are centred on heavy triplets and aggressive vocal stylings, which give them a tone similar to that of ‘Getchoo’ – another song focussed on desperation, and one that completes a similar function as ‘Falling For You;’ the transition into a relationship.
That’s right, you read that accurately – he gets the girl. And this time, it will surely work out; this time it’s different (this time the girl is too young to know better and the speaker’s creepiness is partly negated by a language barrier). Unfortunately, the problem isn’t with the girl. In all likelihood, it never has been. The problem is that the speaker is an obsessive maniac who is selfish enough to bang countless women without a thought of the emotional damage he is doing; who is desperate enough to force a relationship devoid of any trust or love because he can’t stand to be alone; who is conceited enough to think that any woman who refuses him must be a lesbian. This is a man that ruins every relationship he enters – and this one is no exception.
The album’s closer, ‘Butterfly,’ takes us past the inevitable trials and tribulations of this doomed attempt at love and gets straight to the story’s conclusion. The speaker uses an extended metaphor, in which the Japanese girl is a pet butterfly, to show that things have come to a tragic end. He says, “When I woke up today, / looked in on my fairy pet. / She had withered all away, / no more sighing in her breast. / I’m sorry for what I did. / I did what my body told me to, / I didn’t mean to do you harm.” We never get the specifics of what the speaker did to “kill” his pet, but he leaves no room for doubt regarding who is to blame when he apologizes for doing whatever it is that his body told him to – probably boning someone he shouldn’t. After all, he speculates that he might need a “life of chasing butterflies” rather than actually having them. At the very least, it is clear that he was less happy with his Japanese butterfly than he thought he was going to be, as he says in the final verse: “I told you I would return / when the robin makes his nest / but I ain’t never coming back. / I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It’s a hard ending to swallow (I really was rooting for him), but it’s not a surprising one.
As big as the musical change from the poppy ‘Pink Triangle’ to the harsh and blaring ‘Falling For You’ was, the next transition into ‘Butterfly’ is twice as drastic. All of the anger and frustration from the previous track is instantaneously stripped away and replaced with melancholy simplicity. An acoustic guitar and hushed, plaintive vocals from Rivers create a tangible sense of sadness, but it doesn’t come across as whiny or forlorn. If anything, it sounds like the speaker has had a profound moment of self-awareness; that he finally sees the source of all his troubles. It’s far removed from a happy ending, but hey, this is Weezer we are talking about, and I made it pretty clear in my last article that under their shiny veneer of pop rock riffs, they were expressing some real sadness. This is Weezer without the veneer, but with an extra helping of finesse. Pinkerton is twice as intricate as The Blue Album, but it manages to capture twice as much emotion. This is why Pinkerton is better than their début – it’s a more diverse and interesting musical outing, as well as a more emotionally engaging work. This is also probably why it didn’t appeal to the masses to the same degree as The Blue Album; it takes a close listen to get into, not a cursory glance at the singles.
There you have it. That’s my interpretation of the album. Now, let’s talk about the two major other ones. Opera buffs, it’s finally time to talk Puccini. For those of you that don’t know, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is an opera about an American soldier named Pinkerton that marries a fifteen year-old Japanese girl named Cio-Cio San (a play on the Japanese word for butterfly). Pinkerton is a tremendous asshole, and as such, he is only marrying Cio-Cio as a stand in until he can get an American wife. He leaves for three years and the audience is made privy to a touching display of devotion from Cio-Cio, as she cares for their son and dismisses the claims of her friends and family that Pinkerton is never coming back. Pinkerton does return, but with his new American wife, Kate. When he realises how much Cio-Cio cares for him, and how irrevocably horrible he has been to her, he flees the scene completely, leaving others to break the news to his Japanese bride. Eventually, Pinkerton faces his fears and returns to her, only to see that she has committed suicide.
Whether you are familiar with the opera or not (admittedly, I am not) there are some pretty clear comparisons here. There’s the obvious reference in the title of the album, perhaps insinuating that the speaker is a man like Pinkerton (something that I believe is, in part, true); there is the fact that the speaker’s love interest is a young (but in Weezer’s case, not law-breakingly young) Japanese girl that he calls “Butterfly;” there is the reference to “listening to Cio-Cio San” in ‘El Scorcho;’ and there are the final lines of ‘Butterfly,’ in which the speaker lies to the girl, promising that he will return “when the robin makes his nest” – a direct quote from the opera. All of these references are clearly intentional, but I would argue that they are meant to supplement the themes of the story I articulated above, rather than hint that Pinkerton is simply a retelling of Madame Butterfly. There are similarities, but there are also clear differences – the lesbian fiasco jumps to mind, as well as the far more sympathetic view given of the main character. The speaker is a bad guy, clearly, but he is not the American devil of the opera. I would also argue that Pinkerton is missing the critique of American culture that is implicit in the opera. This is a story about the personal, and Japan is used as an escape from his surroundings. This serves to show that there is no doubt about why the speaker cannot have a successful relationship – it doesn’t matter what kind of girl she is or where she comes from, the problem is him. This is certainly not how Japan functions in the opera, which focuses much more on the plight of Cio-Cio and the cultural sacrifices she makes in order to be with the American soldier.
Where the real trouble for my interpretation begins is with the words of Rivers himself. According to him, the album is simply a collection of semi-autobiographical songs that he wrote during a dark time in his life. He allegedly wrote ‘Tired of Sex’ as a rebuke of sex with groupies6, ‘The Good Life’ about his desire to leave his self-imposed life of asceticism at Harvard University behind7, ‘El Scorcho’ about his inability to approach a girl at Harvard8, and ‘Pink Triangle’ about a girl who very clearly was a lesbian9. He claims that the track list is essentially the order in which he wrote the songs, and that it thus chronicles his battle with his own “inner-Pinkerton” – his own selfish and dominating persona akin to the opera’s main character10. Now, I suppose that it’s possible for this album to have simply fallen out of Weezer’s ass into the shape of an intricately woven concept album…but it sure does seem unlikely. There are too many recurring musical motifs, and even some clearly intentional lyrical connections between songs, for this to have all been a coincidence. For example, the “half-Japanese girl” that can “shred the cello” from ‘El Scorcho’ is almost certainly the ‘eighteen year-old girl who live in small city of Japan” from ‘Across the Sea,’ and it definitely seems like it was the same girl that “left [her] cello in the basement” in ‘Falling For You.’ Not to mention that the speaker’s inability to control his sex-drive bleeds through from song to song in the many sexually charged double entendres made throughout (“when I start to feel that pull, / turns out I just pulled myself,” “I’m a burning candle, you’re a gentle moth / teaching me to lick a little bit kinder,” and “ so I sniff and I lick / your envelope” all come to mind). What I’m getting at is that this album, though assuredly autobiographical at its heart, is clearly tempered and altered by the intellect of Rivers. He took his own stories, added a pinch of Puccini, and made damn sure that the music and lyrics backed each other in equal proportion. If this came out naturally, he must have done an absolute tonne of planning beforehand. Either that, or the whole damn band fell out of the Lucky Tree and snapped every branch off on the way down, absorbing tiny slivers of luck into their bloodstreams until their attempt to make an awesome rock album about the time Rivers couldn’t get a girlfriend at Harvard became one of the smartest albums of the decade.
Ultimately, I don’t know what exactly was going through the head of Rivers and Co at the time that they wrote and recorded Pinkerton. Maybe I’m right and it was a thoroughly planned masterpiece that was just lucky enough to come together brilliantly, or maybe I am way off and the album was never meant to convey the deep layers I have found there. Maybe I just didn’t spend enough time on Weezerpedia to find the answers to these questions. Who knows, really? (Rivers) At the end of the day, I love Pinkerton, and I think it was much more than just a happy accident. I mean seriously, Rivers must have learned something about storytelling at Harvard, because he certainly wasn’t getting laid.
Next time, I’ll take a look at Weezer (The Green Album). Make sure you join me.
1 Luerssen, John D. Rivers’ Edge: The Weezer Story. ECW Press, 2004. p. 228.
2 Brunner, Rob. “Older & Weezer.” Entertainment Weekly (597). www.ew.com. Retrieved on 06 November 2012.
3 Rolling Stone. “2002 Rolling Stone Readers’ 100″. www.rocklist.net. Retrieved on 06 November 2012.
4 Crock, Jason. “Interview: Rivers Cuomo.” www.pitchfork.com. Retrieved on 06 November 2012.
5 Metacritic. “Weezer: Pinkerton (Deluxe Edition)” www.metacritic.com. Retrieved on 06 November 2012.
6 Luerssen, John D. p. 105.
7 Luerssen, John D. p. 194.
8 Luerssen, John D. p. 195.
9 Luerssen, John D. p. 196.
10 Garramone, Sam. “Weezer’s sophomore album will not disappoint fans.” www.wpi.edu. Retrieved on 06 November 2012.
Images obtained from www.metacritic.com, www.punknews.org, www.spin.com, www.mtv.com, www.abcroomsinrome.com, and www.audiovole,com respectively.