Sunday, 24 July 2011

Music Or Die: Weezer - Pinkerton

It took me a while to give Weezer a proper chance. Initially introduced to them at a very young age, I remember the Happy Days infused music video to ‘Buddy Holly’ being one of the weird extras on Windows ’95 CD-ROM (alongside a rather primitive 3D hovercraft game, but that’s neither here nor there). Not disliking the song ‘Buddy Holly’, I was at an age where I rarely actively sought out music and instead was just content to listen to whatever my parents played in the car (specifically I remember the numerous car journeys with my mum to pick up my dad from work being soundtracked by her Led Zeppelin cassettes – clearly something that planted a bit of a seed in my mind for later tastes).

I didn’t think about Weezer for years until a friend of mine started to really get in to them when we were around 16. Of course, at 16 I was absolutely insufferable when it came to music. Surrounding myself with a caustic mix of Metallica, Megadeth and assorted, over the top European metal bands, I was determined to close myself off to anything without ridiculous guitar solos and violent riffs, often espousing metal as a superior form of music and audaciously damning everything else. Suffice to say, I was a bit of a tool and discarded Weezer as a prime example of boring “emo” rubbish. Clearly, that was my loss.

I eventually got over my “more metal than thou” phase, stopped wearing black constantly and decided to open my mind a little bit. At 19, before embarking on a rather disastrous holiday with a dear group of friends, one of them loaded up my iPod with some songs they felt they would need over our week trip. Amongst the hilariously inappropriate mix of NoFX, Pig Destroyer and Loudon Wainwright III was a rather large selection of Weezer tracks. Understandably, it teemed with the more popular tracks like ‘Island In The Sun’ and ‘We Are All On Drugs’, but it was the material off the first album that really drew me in – ‘Buddy Holly’ was weirdly nostalgic and ‘Say It Ain’t So’ absolutely floored me. Shortly after the holiday, when I began university, one of the first things I did with my student loan was pick up Weezer’s debut, the colloquially titled Blue Album. My financial irresponsibility aside, it was a great decision as I played that album to death.

For some reason, it wasn’t until nearly a year later that I decided to get the next Weezer album, the rather shoved-under-the-rug Pinkerton. As soon as that raw, searing synth buzz started ‘Tired of Sex’, I was engrossed. In comparison to The Blue Album, the songs were notably simpler instrumentally, with the arpeggios of tracks like ‘Surf Wax America’ eschewed for even more thundering power chords. Everything on Pinkerton was so much more visceral, to the point and hard hitting than its predecessor. When Rivers Cuomo belts out that broken, adolescent yell on ‘No Other One’ or the aforementioned ‘Tired of Sex’, it still sends a little shiver down my spine.

Culled from the remnants of a curiously titled concept album, Songs from the Black Hole, Pinkerton developed in to an autobiographical and disarmingly honest account of a frustrated, slightly nerdy young man thrust in to a lifestyle he only dreamt about – and, unsurprisingly, it’s more complicated than he could ever have imagined. Songwriter and Weezer main-man Rivers Cuomo once said about Pinkerton that it was equivalent to “getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone”* - it feels cathartic at the time, but you’re embarrassed by your own toss-pottery the next day. Of course, he’s right. There is something almost cringe-inducing about the lyrical content of Pinkerton; take the lonely desperation of ‘Across the Sea’ (an infectious semi-ballad that sees Rivers opine his lust for a Japanese fan who is, shockingly, across the sea from him whilst he sits alone, feeling sorry for himself), the bouncy self-defeat of ‘Why Bother?’ (here our protagonist points out the worthlessness in romantic pursuit as it will inevitably end in tears, so he “might as well keep wackin’”) or even the puppy-dog-crush romanticism of ‘El Scorcho’. Honestly, I can see why, when Weezer came back with their Green Album years after Pinkerton failed to make much of an impact, Cuomo was reluctant to play any of the songs off their sophomore effort – I can only imagine it would be like reliving a bad memory. But, as someone who has been in that drunken guts-spilling situation a couple more times than I care to remember, hearing the same irrational, self-pitying sentiments expressed so straight-forwardly and elegantly on Pinkerton reminded me that everyone is prone to those low points. They’re stupid thoughts, but they will occasionally find you. Rarely will you express them, of course, as they’re embryonically lacking a mental application of a wider context and your own common sense. So, it’s a particularly ballsy move to commit them to record without either sugar-coating them with rationality or embellishing them with melodrama, just to take the bitingly pathetic edge off.

Of course, it wasn’t just the lyrics that made Pinkerton work so well. Indeed, similar bitterness was present on much of the band’s previous album – ‘Say It Ain’t So’, ‘The World Has Turned And Left Me Here’ and ‘In The Garage’ all seem to be the laments of a rock loving nerd. Rather, Pinkerton excels at communicating its embarrassing but painfully human messages through the mere tone and production of the album. Nothing on Pinkerton sounds polished. The bass bumps and thuds in a nonchalant manner, the guitars are distorted with razor-like fuzz and are often accompanied by keys that squeal like a drill, the drums simply accentuate the cacophony and the high-pitched backing vocals often seem slightly out of place. Whilst the songs have clearly been meticulously written, their actual recording doesn’t sound as laboured and perfected as everything the band did before and after. It’s a wonder that any of it works, but it culminates in a surprisingly explosive and coherent platter of pop-rock. It is as if the music itself personifies the lyrical themes of the album, both serving as the primal and evocative emotional spurts of a man at the very end of his tether.

Whilst the songs present are effectively catchy pop anthems, the menacing sonics and bleak lyrics prevent the album from becoming as arguably twee as later efforts like The Green Album. Although post-Pinkerton Weezer still has much to offer, no other album quite touches on the exceptionally human and organic material of Pinkerton. Few albums seem as emotionally genuine as Pinkerton and that’s where the appeal lies. In those unfortunate instances where you’re racked with either abject dejection or self-indulgent self-loathing, nothing else quite hits the spot musically. Weezer get you. Or, at least they used to get you when they wrote Pinkerton.

*According to Wikipedia, this quote is from John D. Luerssen's Rivers' Edge: The Weezer Story, p348. Allegedly.

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