You’ve Got My Letter, I’ve Got Your Songs

Last weekend, my wife and I met friends for a night of tapas. On the way home, with our bellies full of Spanish meats and cheeses, we turned on the radio and heard “The End Of The Game,” the newest single from Weezer. That a band who has been making music for 25 years can get a new single on the radio was, at the very least, surprising. The fact that the song sounds exactly like Weezer was, well, not surprising.

But as I heard the newest song from a band who has made 14 albums (their newest album, Van Weezer, will be the third album in two years), I couldn’t help but think about their second album. In the course of the song’s three minutes and twenty-one seconds, I didn’t even hear the new song anymore. Every chord and lyric I heard made me think of an album which came out over two decades ago. For days, one major question just kept popping into my brain like one of River Cuomo’s sing-along melodies:

Did Pinkerton break Weezer?

A Brief History Of Weezer: Part 1

On May 10, 1994, the world was introduced to Weezer, and alternative rock changed as we know it.

To put things in perspective, some of the biggest hits from 1993 came from angry grunge rockers (Nirvana, Alice In Chains), sad mopey whiners (Smashing Pumpkins, Counting Crows) and a collection of weirdos (Flaming Lips, Porno For Pyros). The scene needed a breath of fresh air, and like a warm Santa Ana breeze, we got The Blue Album.

Technically a self-titled album, like almost half of Weezer’s career output, the Ric Ocasek-produced debut release took the world by storm. Because this album was so different from what everyone else was doing, while also being made made by four unknown weirdos, their record label had no expectation of sales and chose not to release a single. I think their strategy was a hope that the album would somehow catch on through word of mouth.

And it did.

Thanks to some brilliantly directed Spike Jonze videos, the album quickly caught traction. In under seven months, the album went gold. A little over a month later, it would go platinum. By August of 1995, the album had gone double platinum. Weezer had quickly gone from an unknown to an amazing success.

It’s crazy that The Blue Album didn’t have an initial single, because every song on it feels like it has become a hit single in the last 25 years. This record feels like it has, a minimum, 13 singles on it, and considering it only has 10 songs, that’s a pretty fucking remarkable feat.

As the world fell in love with these power-pop songs, we got to meet the minstrels who gave us these gifts. Matt Sharp was the goofball bassist. Patrick Wilson was the drummer who seemed like the friendly one. Brian Bell was the dreamboat guitarist. Behind it all, however, was Rivers Cuomo, the nerdy misunderstood troubadour who wrote the songs we would be singing for decades to come. They all seemed like good guys; friends who came together to make a great album (the fact that Bell replaced original guitarist Jason Cropper is something I choose to ignore). They seemed easy to love, and perhaps more importantly, easy to like.

Pitchfork called Weezer one of the best hundred albums of the decades, and Rolling Stone called it one of the best 500 albums of all time. Weezer had become hitmakers, and the world was excited to see what they would do next.

But no one expected Pinkerton. That’s where everything started to go wrong.

What Makes A Defining Album?

One of my favorite people to talk about music with is fellow Fancy Boy Michael Grace. One of the things we talked about recently was when a band makes a great album that changes and defines them.

For Radiohead, it’s 2001’s masterpiece Kid A, their weird space opera that the band has been trying to recreate in every subsequent release. For Coldplay, it’s 2006’s Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends, perhaps the last time the band has tried to create a massive creative statement. Kings Of Leon were never the same after Only By The Night, choosing to abandon their southern rock roots for the stadium anthems that they’ve now embraced and filled every album with. Weirdly, almost every album Wilco released from 1999-2010 could be considered their defining album.

But none of these albums did what Pinkerton did to Weezer and I’m not entirely sure why.

A Brief History Of Weezer: Part 2

In 1996, the world wasn’t ready for the follow up to Weezer’s debut masterpiece. In hindsight, it doesn’t look like Weezer was ready either.

After the success of The Blue Album, Rivers Cuomo did a very un-rock star move and enrolled in Harvard University, choosing to study classical composition. The band had abandoned their efforts to write a space opera entitled Songs From The Black Hole, and Cuomo found himself writing songs while waiting for his microwave dinners to cook. At the time, Cuomo was also undergoing painful physical therapy after a surgery which lengthened his right leg. He was limping with a cane and being challenged by school, fame and his physical ailments, and he did the only thing he felt he was good at: he wrote songs.

“And this album really is a story: the story of the last 2 years of my life. And as you’re probably well aware, these have been two very weird years.”

Rivers Cuomo, in a letter to the Weezer fan club, 1996.

In between Cuomo’s Harvard terms, the band would get together to record the album that would become Pinkerton, named after a character from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Choosing to create a darker, more abrasive album which they felt would give the audience a better sense of their live sound, Weezer chose to not bring back Ocasek and produce the album themselves.

Pinkerton is a wildly personal album that shows what a bad place Cuomo was in at the time. Where others would have been happy to sing about their time with groupies, Rivers gave us “Tired Of Sex.” He didn’t just write songs about heartbreak, he wrote heartbreaking songs. Pinkerton showed us a man hurting. Where the first album felt like a cool California breeze, this album was a typhoon of pain and anxiety.

In the book Rivers’ Edge: The Weezer Story, it was reported that Geffen Records called the album brave, but there were concerns within the label of how the band would be portrayed. Weezer had rejected Spike Jonze (who had directed the videos for “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)”) to direct the first single, “El Sorcho”, choosing to go with Mark Romanek (most famous at this point for directing Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”). The writing was clearly on the wall: Weezer was no longer the cheery sunshine band people fell in love with. They were changing and America would have to be ready to change with them.

America was not ready.

I’m Tired, So Tired…

To claim that there were problems with Pinkerton from the moment it was released would be unfair. Problems began way before that.

The day before the album was released, the security firm Pinkerton’s Inc. (named for the famous detective Allan Pinkerton) filed a restraining order and promised a lawsuit claiming the title was a copyright infringement. The lawsuit would be thrown out in court.

Geffen tried to put on a happy face before the release on September 24, 1996, but if they had learned anything from Pinkerton, they would understand that nothing about the album was meant to be happy. The record began underperforming almost immediately, selling only 47,000 copies the first week. If that were today, it would be the number one record of the week. But this was the mid-90’s, and Pinkerton barely cracked the top 20.

It wasn’t just the fans who were scurrying from the sinking Pinkerton ship; critics were not pleased with the result either. The Los Angeles Times called the album, “sloppy and awkward“, and even publications that gave the album a favorable review, like Entertainment Weekly, admitted that “it’ll disappoint anyone who prefers” the sounds of the first album. And it did appear that fans were disappointed, as a Rolling Stone’s reader poll called it the third-worst album of 1996.

Scrambling to try and find a way to get the album to sell, Geffen rushed out “The Good Life” as a second single, calling on the band to quickly shoot another music video. Unfortunately, this was the worst possible thing they could have asked Weezer to do, as they were dealing with internal issues while also facing the first real failure of their career.

“The Good Life” video, directed by Jonathon Dayton & Valerie Faris, shows a mess of a band when it shows the band at all. Cuomo and Bell seem to be taking the video seriously, perhaps too seriously. Meanwhile, on the other side, Sharp and Wilson hardly seem completely uninterested in being there. Sharp is hardly pretending to play his instrument (when he’s even holding it at all), and Wilson is all smiles while playing maracas behind his drum set.  I think the video was edited to make it look like the band was having fun, but Wilson and Sharp look like they’re trying to actively disrupt the shoot, especially when you know all the context. If you’re trying to look for signs that there are problems within the band, it’s easy to find them in this video.

And, for Weezer, it didn’t get better.

The band’s third single, “Pink Triangle”, didn’t chart. The record wasn’t selling. Where The Blue Album had gone platinum in 18 months, it would take Pinkerton almost five years to reach the same mark. In August of 1997, Matt Sharp would play his last show with the band, announcing his departure months later to focus on The Rentals.

Then, for a long time, there was nothing. No one had heard anything from Weezer until 2001, when most fans had considered them gone. And when they returned (with another self-titled release known as The Green Album), Cuomo seemed to have a songwriting mandate: To never make another album like Pinkerton again.

And, to this day, he hasn’t.

An Island In The Sun

Since 2000, Weezer’s post-Pinkerton output all has all been tremendously, well, cheery. 

Cuomo has often claimed that he has a formula for figuring out pop songs. In earlier Weezer times, he said he was using a notebook. In later times, he updated to Google docs. Looking at Weezer’s songs since the turn of the century, there does seem to be a formula.

Nearly every song has a sunny disposition. Cuomo and Weezer have been the master of giving us power chords, sweet melodies, and reasons to smile. In their music video for “Island In The Sun” (where they returned to director Spike Jonze), the band filmed themselves cuddling with puppies and other animals. For the music video for 2002’s “Keep Fishin’”, they chose to star with Muppets. Weezer made an active decision to only seem to make up-tempo, happy rockers.

What they probably didn’t expect was that there would be a rabid group of people who wanted to know one thing: Why the hell weren’t they making more songs like Pinkerton?

Gotta Get Back To The Good Life

I feel like it’s important to note that over the twelve albums that have come out since Pinkerton, Weezer has been a massive success. This is a group who has sold over 35 million worldwide albums. Because of this, it’s easy to see why Cuomo has made a choice to stick with cheerier songs and albums. It’s easy to look at this as a simple narrative: Weezer had one insanely successful album of happy power-pop, one failed album of weird mope-rock, and then a full career of wildly popular happy jams.

In other words, Cuomo learned from his mistakes, took a couple years (and a new bass player in Scott Shriner, who had been working with Vanilla Ice before joining the band), and went back to plugging in his formula and making hits.

The only problem with that is that there’s a large group of people who don’t look at Pinkerton as the flaw. They look at it as the success, and they’re wondering why Cuomo hasn’t gone back to it.

There is a large amount of Weezer fans, even those who like the post-Pinkerton output, who think that their second album is the best thing the band has ever done. And it’s easy to understand why they might have issues with the albums that have come out since; when you’ve made a wildly personal album, making anything less than that can seem superficial and trite.

When Weezer sang on their debut album about feeling safe in the garage listening to classic rock and playing D & D, Pinkerton was the next logical progression. I remember feeling that way when I first heard it. “Oh, Rivers is weird around women? Fuck, me too! He gets it, and he’s one of the most famous dudes in rock!”

In my mind, Cuomo, now 49, still has a notebook full of personal songs he’s wanted to put out. Maybe he’s a little scared to put them out. Or maybe he’s worried what the rest of the band or his label will think of them. 

I just hope he knows I’m here for them. A lot of people are.

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