Pinkerton The Onion A.V. Club - Better Late Than Never? record review

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Pinkerton cover
Studio album by Weezer
Released September 24, 1996
Professional reviews

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Metascore 100
Reviewer: Josh Modell (The Onion A.V. Club)
Publishing date: November 30, 2009
No rating given

The best way to describe my relationship with Weezer’s music is indifference spiked with moments of mild pleasure. I remember pretty clearly seeing/hearing “Undone (The Sweater Song)” on MTV in 1994 and liking it well enough, though not enough to go out and pursue it. Other fun hits with attendant fun videos followed—“Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So”—but I regarded Weezer as too mainstream for my tastes at the time. (I was listening to a lot of Pavement and Luna and Superchunk and Blur and GBV at the time—admittedly not exactly deep underground tastes.)

These days, I regard Weezer songs the same way I regard hits from the ’80s and ’90s: with pleasure, but not a great deal of connection. “Undone” came on the radio a few weeks ago, and at first I couldn’t place it—I thought it was Nada Surf’s “Popular” until the first verse kicked in. But my brain treated it like it treats “867-5309” or “Jessie’s Girl” or “It’s A Sin” or “La Isla Bonita”—it bopped along and somehow remembered all the words, only to promptly forget them again immediately when the song was over. And that’s great.

I didn’t go out of my way to listen to Weezer in the ’90s, and I don’t go out of my way to listen to them now—I skim through each album quickly as it comes out, then generally end up deciding it doesn’t do much for me. Nobody has ever made a case that convinced me I should listen to any of their albums, really. Except, of course, 1996’s Pinkerton. It’s strange, because I remember when Pinkerton came out that the general feeling was disappointment—both from fans looking for more “blue album”-style hooks, and from Geffen Records looking for big hit singles that simply weren’t there. The kids were disappointed, far fewer people bought it, and it looked, for all intents and purposes, to have killed the band completely. After the Pinkerton tour, the band basically split up for three years.

But something happened in that time, and keeps happening: The commercial flop became a secret success, passed slowly by word of mouth. (The Intertubes were much slower in those days, kids.) There was a vocal contingent that loved it from the start: I remember my friend Jason (whose own band, The Promise Ring, was blamed alongside Weezer for emo’s resurgence in the ’90s) telling me how Pinkerton was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But I didn’t listen, possibly because Jason also really liked Sheryl Crow at the time. I surely heard at least one of the album’s singles in passing, but I never actually listened to the whole thing.

Over the years, Pinkerton has become a touchstone—spoken of in hushed tones and with the kind of reverence that almost inevitably leads to disappointment. But I decided to finally strap myself in and give it a whirl. Guess what? It’s pretty good.

I wasn’t blown away, but I’m not entirely sure that’s possible at this moment. I imagine it’s like meeting someone you think it really nice/cool/pretty, but at a time in your life when there’s no reason to take the relationship any further. I already have a lot of straight-ahead rock records with confessional lyrics that I like. If I had met this one back in 1997, I might really love it. For now, we’re just going to have to be friends.

Which isn’t a slight: Like I said—pretty good. I definitely understand the kids that went gaga over Rivers Cuomo’s lyrics: It takes balls and a little bit of insanity to follow up your relatively pain-free (if I recall correctly) first album with a fairly serious examination of your own sexual psyche. (That makes it sounds more painful than it is.) Being “Tired Of Sex” certainly isn’t a common theme in rock music, especially in the context of a guy getting laid like crazy after becoming famous. It’s also a solid riffer—crunchy and simple, with a little bit of rock braggadocio and even more self-doubt. No wonder teens and early twentysomethings went for it.

But probably the most-discussed song on Pinkerton is “Across The Sea,” in which Cuomo fantasizes about a Japanese girl who’s written him a fan letter. Normal rock-star behavior would dictate that he simply use her sexually every time he’s in her neighborhood—and clearly part of him would like to do that—but he turns it into a tale of longing, both sexual and emotional. Score one for nuance.

He’s less successful—musically and emotionally—on “Pink Triangle” (about falling in love with a lesbian) and “The Good Life,” which is snappy but ultimately a little forgettable and/or annoying, especially in the line about “booty shaking.” Which reminds me: I expected Pinkerton to be a lot less fun than it actually is, based on the fawning and the aforementioned hushed tones. I thought I was in for something much darker and deeper, when in fact Weezer spends quite a bit of Pinkerton having a raucously good time: “El Scorcho” sums it up nicely, with lyrics about Cuomo’s heart, but guitars big enough to crush any sadness.

Ultimately, I’m glad I spent the last week with Pinkerton—it gives me context for all the mad love, forgiveness, and frustration aimed at Weezer over the years. Not only that, it gives me a few more solid pop songs to pack into my brain. I doubt I’ll hear many of these on the radio—more likely it’ll be “Buddy Holly” on a ’90s flashback weekend—but I can sing “Getchoo” in the shower now.

— Josh Modell, November 30, 2009

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