Edited by Brett Buchanan
In 1994, Weezer exploded onto the alternative scene of the day. Catapulted by their eponymous debut album, also affectionately known as “The Blue Album,” the power-pop-punk quartet brought their brand of fun, fresh rock to the forefront of Generation X. Singles “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Say It Ain’t So” became instant classics. The songs that made up the album are great; strong melodies, catchy choruses and fuzz-drenched guiars. The Spike Jonez directed music video for “Buddy Holly” proved an unprecedented smash success, giving the band massive airtime and exposure on MTV. Furthermore, the innovative video which put Weezer with the cast of 1970’s television show Happy Days helped the band solidify their stake in the pop culture of the time.
For their second album, 1996’s Pinkerton (which just turned twenty), Rivers Cuomo and company provided the musical world with their Magnum Opus. The self-produced album featured a rawer, more aggressive sound and overall tone but was no less catchy and fun. “El Scorcho” and “The Good Life” showed the band was just as capable of continuing to produce top-notch pop worthy songs while “Across the Sea” and “Pink Triangle” showed Cuomo’s ability to be a master lyricist.
In the twenty years since Pinkerton, Weezer has released eight albums (three of which are also eponymous releases referred to by the color of the album cover). While the band no doubt continued to produce good albums and hit singles, they have never quite reached the high bar they set for themselves with the one-two punch of Blue and Pinkerton. Weezer didn’t suffer the dreaded sophomore slump many other bands run into when following up a successful debut. Even though Pinkerton was less favorably received upon release it has gone on to become considered not only their greatest musical accomplishment, but one of the best albums of the 90’s.
But why have Weezer never been able to reclaim the absolute glory of their first two albums? What made them so great? The band has been a recording entity for twenty-two years. But just what is it about these first two albums that makes them stand so far above the rest of Weezer’s discography?
The Refreshing, Fun Sound of The Blue Album
On their debut album, Weezer sounded refreshing, especially with the climate at the time. There was a heaviness in the air in 1994. Kurt Cobain, one of Cuomo’s biggest influences, committed suicide. Grunge as it had been was dark, dreary and mysterious. The Blue Album is the musical equivalent of waking up in the morning, drawing the curtains, and being blasted by sunshine. Cheery, upbeat and unapologetically poppy, Weezer were as the antitheses of Grunge. Cuomo’s penchant for writing songs in Major keys with tried-and-true I-IV-V-IV chord progressions only add to the immediate catchiness of the album.
Grunge bands looked down on hair metal bands that dominated the 1980’s who were excessive in everything from their clothes to their guitar solos, they opted for a simpler approach. Weezer took it a step further. Basic song structures that come in, hit hard, and get out before overstaying their welcome. Weezer’s look had a simplicity to it as well. They looked like kids you’d see roaming the halls of your school. Average-Joe’s with an above-average ability to craft amazing music.
You can hear the influence of The Beach Boys on Weezer’s debut. Opting for a Barbershop Quartet type approach, tracks like “Holiday” and “Surf Wax America” showcase their ability to harmonize beautifully. Rather than going for over the top bridge section or an exaggerated guitar solo, they opt to drop in these vocal interplays to take the songs in an unexpected direction.
For a debut album, the vision is so clear and concise. The slick production courtesy of Ric Ocasek only adds to the brightness of the album. The distortion is turned all the way up on the guitars, but it doesn’t sound muddy. When album opener “My Name is Jonas” kicks in, the guitars are so crisp yet so heavy, they chug with the sonic strength of Metallica. Yet the steady pace at which they play leaves so much breathing room you can easily lock in with the bass and drums. The same can be said for “Undone (The Sweater Song).” When the guitars go from clean to distorted, it’s like a gut punch that only raises your excitement for the song.
Weezer never sounded like this again. Even Pinkerton has a different mix that makes it equally awesome, but still different. The closest Weezer have come to replicating the sound of their debut is with 2016’s eponymous White Album. But for as good as that album is, it pales in comparison when matched up against this juggernaut of a debut album.
The Lyrics of Pinkerton
Listening to Pinkerton is like reading pages straight from Rivers Cuomo’s diary. It doesn’t matter who you are. On Pinkerton, there are songs in which you can easily relate to the lyrics. “Why Bother” oozes with self-doubt: “Why bother? It’s gonna hurt me. It’s gonna kill when you desert me.” Anyone who ever had a crush on someone knows that feeling. The worry that even if you get what you want, in the end it will only cause more damage. The risk isn’t worth the reward.
Cuomo belts, “But I’m shaking at your touch, I like you way too much. My baby I’m afraid I’m falling for you” on “Falling For You.” Instantly relatable! “The Good Life” has Cuomo coming to terms with himself and where he currently stands. Bouncing between apathy, self-deprecation, and self-declaration, Cuomo demands his intentions be known; even if in reality it is himself he has to convince of this.
“El Scorcho” is Cuomo’s plea to the object of his desire. “Across The Sea” is a heartbreaking fantastic tale of the one being out there, but not being able to be them. It uses a real life example as a metaphor for the hardships and barriers that sometimes need to be overcome to be with the one you want to be with.
The music is great no doubt. In terms of the rhythm section, it doesn’t get any better for Weezer than Pinkerton. The drums are absolutely savage, while the fuzzy, walking basslines are almost hypnotic. But the lyrics. It’s all about the lyrics here. The lyrics are absolutely universal. But they are also about one of the most, if not the most, universal experience of life: falling in love. These are distortion soaked love songs that resonate with universal appeal. The sheer timelessness in Cuomo’s words makes Pinkerton an album that has endured and will continue to do so. Pinkerton may be about Cuomo’s personal experiences, but any listener can inject themselves into the narrative of each track. This is what makes Pinkerton the masterpiece it is.
It is also worth mentioning Matt Sharp, Weezer’s original bass player. These are the only two albums that feature him. While Cuomo is, and has always been, the creative mastermind behind Weezer, Sharp’s contributions to these two albums cannot be understated. His bass playing, his background vocals, and his falsetto are all over these two albums. Scott Shriner is a great bass player and has been with Weezer for fifteen years now, but you can argue that the closest album to matching these two masterpieces is 1995’s Return of the Rentals; the debut album from the Matt Sharp led, The Rentals.