Weezer’s Pinkerton at 25: The Band Has Moved On, Though We Never May Do the Same

Celebrating 25 years of Weezer's most polarizing album, released on September 24th, 1996

Illustration by Steven Fiche
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Weezer isn’t giving interviews about Pinkerton for its 25th anniversary. There’s no big press push promoting a deluxe vinyl reissue of the album celebrating its quarter-century of existence. (As of press time, you can’t even buy Pinkerton from the band’s merch store, though it is readily available elsewhere.)

This relative silence about an auspicious milestone (which will officially occur on September 24th) for one of their best-loved and most influential records might seem a little odd. But maybe Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, whose intensely personal songwriting drives this 10-song, 34-minute record, doesn’t feel like there’s any advantage to speaking further on the subject.

Clearly, the band has moved on; though they took a five-year break after Pinkerton that was, at the time, commonly mistaken for a breakup, in the 20 years since they returned with the less personal Green Album, they’ve put out eleven additional studio albums of new material, including two in 2021 alone.

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And Cuomo has had experience failing to keep up with the public consensus on this album in the past: His follow-up to the smash hit Blue Album was greeted with mixed reviews and tepid sales upon its release in September 1996; by the time its cult had solidified, so had Cuomo’s embarrassment. In 2001, he called it a “hideous record” and likened it to making a drunken fool of himself.

By 2008, he was more magnanimous — while sounding like he was describing it as if waking up from a blackout, or at least a distant memory: “Listening to it, I can tell that I was really going for it when I wrote and recorded a lot of those songs.”

Today, “El Scorcho” still turns up in plenty of setlists, but it’s the only Pinkerton tune in their top ten most-played live songs. Sometimes Pinkerton’s name will be invoked, whether by fans or critics or band members, in the tantalizing run-up to a new album. Inevitably, the comparisons are a bit tenuous, and the album continues to stand alone.

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All of this sort of makes Pinkerton the ultimate Weezer album — but not necessarily in the way some of its most devoted acolytes would claim. For that matter, maybe some of that devotion is waning as those fans continue to age. Whether it originates from older fans or newer ones, there’s an understandable sentiment that some of the feelings Cuomo lays bare on the album — especially as he cooks up a crush on a teenage fan from Japan during “Across the Sea” and opens “El Scorcho” with the line “goddamn you half-Japanese girls” — are a little, ah, problematic.

In other words: yet another reaction cycle for Cuomo to fall behind on, and more incentive for the band to tune out whatever consensus has formed.

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Here’s one of those personal things that make people love this album: Pinkerton came out right before my sixteenth birthday. A high school friend of mine bought me the cassette for the occasion. (Thanks, Adam!) I still rode the bus to school, and for a while I listened to Pinkerton almost every morning. Girls did not like me. This is probably another reason Cuomo isn’t particularly interested in talking about Pinkerton. Not because of my specific lack of game as a teenager, but that little cringe of recognition that so many fans probably have when waxing sorta-nostalgic about this record.

As much as it hurt to hear Cuomo slag off Pinkerton years later, he wasn’t wrong to characterize Pinkerton as embarrassing. It is! In some ways, it’s pretty typical second-album stuff about the tedium of touring and the emptiness of rock-star life, yearning for something more substantial but unable to make the changes necessary to start healing.

Some of this also makes it kind of a weird record for a nerdy teenager to relate to: the very first song, “Tired of Sex,” is about the soul-killing emptiness of endless one-night stands. Sounds rough, Rivers! To reiterate, I was still riding a school bus regularly.

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But: I related to the album anyway; it’s only later that I really recognize it as part of a rich history of rock stars complaining about being rock stars after becoming rock stars. Listen to the bridge in “El Scorcho,” where Cuomo and the band seem to get impatient with the anthemic singalong that most resembles a Blue Album track (albeit with rougher edges). The tempo increases and Cuomo vents self-disgust: “How stupid is it? I can’t talk about it/ I gotta sing about it/and make a record of/ my heart.” For years, I never heard the “my heart” bit, because it’s obscured by backing-vocal placement and overlap with the next line as Cuomo speeds ahead to another “How stupid is it?”

I wasn’t any kind of oversexed rock star at sixteen, but I instinctively recognized that burst of self-loathing-yet-self-aggrandizing frustration, and recognized it again as the narrator of “Across the Sea” bemoaned his love for a far-off possible soulmate, and again as the narrator of “Pink Triangle” bemoaned his unrequited love for a girl who’s not into guys. (It’s as if Cuomo knew that a year and change later, my favorite movie of 1997 would be Chasing Amy.) There’s a whole lot of bemoaning on this record.

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Yet that whiny, self-pitying, emo-inspiring heart-on-sleeve sloppiness is also fun as a messy, catchy form of catharsis — pervasively enough to sail through the less scream-a-long-friendly tracks. In retrospect, it’s difficult to brand Pinkerton as a record of ten perfect pop songs, a la Blue; do “Getchoo,” “Falling for You,” or “No Other One” really stand alone as mixtape-worthy, the way that even a B-squad Blue track like “Holiday” does? No, but they’re good songs that benefit immeasurable from the whole Pinkerton vibe.

Which, I hope you’ll agree, is actually the whole Weezer vibe.

You probably won’t agree, because the consensus among fans of a certain age (or, yeah, taste level) is that post-Pinkerton Weezer is mostly the wrong kind of embarrassing. Craven, adolescent, maybe even soulless. It would be easy to say that Pinkerton, in fact, broke Cuomo’s prodigious songwriting skills, and created the awkward nerd who pieces together both lyrics and melodies from fragments stored in a master computer database.

I understand that view, but do not subscribe to it. (When my wife saw the SNL sketch with Matt Damon portraying a particularly vociferous Weezer defender, she asked what they paid for my life rights.) Pinkerton connects not because it’s an emotional outlier in the Weezer discography, but because it’s a particularly intense and teenager-friendly version of what Weezer does on most if not all of their records — even the ones, like Green, that sound like they’re robotically attempting to recreate the good times of their first record (and avoid the hot mess of Pinkerton).

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Basically, all of their records are a cocktail of emo sincerity and an adolescent attempt to conceal those feelings in goofy jokes and obtuseness.

Go back to “El Scorcho,” with those half-off-mic cries of Spanish at the outset, the attempts at singalong joviality giving way to those double-time insecurities. It’s less controlled than the mix of defiance and dorkiness that powers “Pork and Beans,” or the teenage courtship flash-forwarded to adult disappointment on “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To,” but it’s cut from the same cloth.

This does not mean that every Weezer album is as good as another. Pinkerton is obviously, at minimum, their second-best. But as I’ve grown older, I find myself reaching for others more often: their 2016 White Album, especially, and, more recently, their metal-pop venture Van Weezer. (The orchestral pop of OK Human is even more like middle-aged Pinkerton, but again: the tension is there on Van Weezer, too, as the boys try their best to rock out like they’re back in the garage.)

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It’s not because I recoil at the emotional openness of Pinkerton so much as I’m able to recognize the forms of emotional openness (and closed-off awkwardness) on Weezer’s other records. I don’t always need it spelled out; I don’t always need the ultimate Weezer album. But 25 years on, I’ve found the best way to tend to my Weezer fandom is not to put Pinkerton on a pedestal, but to recognize the Pinkerton lurking underneath so much of their other work — just like it lurks inside me, forever an ex-teenager.

Pinkerton Artwork:

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