Weezer’s Pinkerton: 10 Years Later

Island of the Butterfly and Peninsula of DogI just realized that Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton, was released ten years ago last week. September 24, 1996, to be precise.

A few years ago, I was emailing a friend and we were arguing about the definition of a concept album. The Mountain Goats had just released Tallahassee, which I suggested was, so far, the concept album of the millennium. Pinkerton, I claimed, was the concept album of the 90s with Exile in Guyville finishing up a close second. My friend didn’t think of either of those as concept albums. I replied that each one definitely tells a coherent story, complete with a fully developed narrative arc. I allowed that it “might be 80% in my head, now that you mention it, but it’s there.” When challenged to spell it out, I whipped off the following…

God damn it. I didn’t want to have to do this because I’m lazy, but here it is (in a crude, stream-of-conscious first draft):

Pinkerton

Act I

As we start out, our hero, a young musician tasting the first fruits of fame, discovers that he’s tired of casual relationships and the self-loathing that comes with meaningless sex, and wonders why none of these encounters lead to true love (Tired of Sex). So he attempts a real relationship (“This is beginning to get serious / It used to be a game”) but soon realizes the vulnerable position this puts him in, as he starts to understand that the woman he is involved with is still simply seeking the type of casual relationship our hero had been involved in up until this time: “What I did to them / You’ve done to me.” (Getchoo). Although he realizes that this is not the perfect relationship, he decides to stick with her (No Other One). This doesn’t last, of course, and after this relationship dissolves he is deeply hurt and has become guarded even when he meets women that he think he could potentially love (Why Bother?).


But then a letter from a young fan inspires him to examine what he thinks it really means to love. This is the central turning point in the story as our hero realizes that he is absolutely fucked emotionally. He is coming to grips with his psychosexual neuroses that won’t allow him to enter into a relationship that might possibly work out, that he has been sabotaging himself since he was a child. Even his choice of career has made it almost impossible to have a real relationship (Across the Sea). So he decides, fuck it, let’s just have some fun with this… I’m tired of beating myself up about it. He realizes it’s okay to have a healthy sexual relationship, that he doesn’t have to be a monk (The Good Life).

Act II

As he opens himself up to new, less self-destructive women, he realizes that he doesn’t really know how to behave in these situations. He knew how to fuck groupies and pine after girls he knew he could never have, but interacting with female peers is scary and confusing (El Scorcho, Pink Triangle).

Eventually, he finds the perfect girl who fulfills everything he needs. While at first he’s ambivalent (“I’d do ’bout anything to get the hell out alive / Or maybe I would rather settle down with you”), they work things out and get downright schmoopy (“You’re the lucky one / No! I’m the lucky one”). Life is great! (Falling for You).

Act III

Alas, he discovers that once he gets what he thought he wanted, that he no longer wants it anymore. It’s the thrill of the chase that’s so exciting: “Every time I pin down what I think I want it slips away.” And he has to leave her. And then he does (Butterfly).

That’s how I hear it anyway. And if that’s not a concept album, I don’t know what is.

Night Snow at Kambara

After writing that up, I decided not to try to do the same with Exile. I realized that explicating Pinkerton took a little magic out of the album. I guess I prefer my concepts to remain in my head.

Previously on GLONO: Weezer at the Aragon, 2001; Weezer vs. the Record Industry: Guess Who Won; Grasp the Rock: Weezer Lets the Hardcore Fans Produce their New Album; and Well, It’s Better than the Last One: Maladroit.

24 thoughts on “Weezer’s Pinkerton: 10 Years Later”

  1. Wow… who’da thunk that Pinkerton would’ve been a prime candidate of an exegetical study, or a treatise of interpretation like that?? Don’t let me be misunderstood; I’m quite impressed, I dig your analysis. So much so that when I finally do get around to “getting intimate” with this album (I know, one of my hidden shames), I’m sure it’ll color my impressions.

    And that ain’t a bad thing, necessarily…

  2. Well hell yes. You turned me on to this most kick ass of records. When you layer in the whole Madame Butterfly reference–the exotic young asian girl, the American dog on tour who feels something for her but doesn’t have the integrity to stay true to her–the way he actually succeeds in making us sympathetic to his unconscionably lame excuses (“I did what my body told me to”)–it’s a devastating character study, and I don’t know of anything else quite like it.

    “Exile” is a great, well-sequenced record with a strong sense of where the singer is coming from, but without the sort of narrative arc a “concept” implies. At least it doesn’t work for me in that way.

  3. If High Fidelity is the perfect movie about being a guy, Pinkerton is the perfect album about being a guy.

    The women must never find out, lest they understand how crazy and insecure we are inside…

  4. Hmm…And maybe Exile in Guyville is the perfect album about being a girl, replete with all the little secrets they don’t want guys to know.

    Jake I won’t make you exegesis-sify Exile. I can kind of guess how it might go. FUCK is it a great record though. Definitely top 3 for the 90s if not number 1.

    If I ever met her again I would definitely risk fooldom & gush about that to her.

  5. I may like other albums better (although not many). I may not stand for anything Weezer did after The Green Album. But Pinkerton is about as perfect as an album could get in the sense that it achieves everything it wants to maximum capacity.

    DJMurph, you need to get it. It’s really head-and-shoulders-and-stomach-and-balls-and-kneecaps above anything else Weezer has done.

  6. In a March 1997 Guitar World interview they asked him if he would describe Pinkerton as a concept album, and he replied, “Yeah it is, in a subtle way. It’s not like 2112 [Mercury, 1976] by Rush or anything, but there is a story. The songs are sequenced in the order that I wrote them, so you can kind of hear the evolution of my personality over the two years. I wrote some songs that were about totally random things, so I didn’t include any of them. They’re good, but they just weren’t part of the whole Pinkerton saga.”

    Also, there are many references to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (which I’ve never actually seen/heard/read), but apparently the main character, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, marries a 15-year-old geisha named Cio-Cio-San, and then ditches her. (Coincidentally, there is also a character named “Sharpless,” which is funny since Pinkerton was Weezer’s last album with Matt Sharp, ha ha.)

    The other interesting thing is that Pinkerton was originally started as a “space rock opera” called Songs from the Black Hole with songs sung by different characters. I’m guessing at some point he just decided to ditch the outer space setting and go with the Madame Butterfly stuff instead. But I think it’s interesting that it started out as rock opera…and then got narrowed down to just a concept album, far less ambitious in the grand scheme of rock and roll pretense!

  7. Glad to see the ol’ spotlight turned on one of my all-time favorite albums!

    Besides the great lyrical themes (as covered in this piece) I so love the sound on this album – it’s so “un-produced”, if you know what I mean, as if we’re all invited to River’s garage…

    All the instruments are perfectly audible, yet they are all over the place.

  8. Good explication, but I think what really puts Pinkerton over the line into “brilliant concept album” territory is the Madame Butterfly references barabajagal mentioned. There are lots of albums that deal with relationships – and probably a bunch that chart the course of a relationship in a very similar way to what Pinkerton does. But that layer of intertextuality Cuomo puts into the album is just incredible; I can only echo barabajagal again and say I can’t think of anything else that’s at all like it.

  9. i distinctly remember the moment i picked Pinkerton off the shelf of a Tower Records in Dublin, CA. it’s the same way for many influential albums in my life. I was expecting something like the Blue Album, but was immediately drawn into Pinkerton’s narratives. I had a BORING teenange desk job after-hours at my school/church to make some cash, and I used to listen to Pinkerton and transcribe the lyrics to all the songs. “Goddam you half-Japanese girls, you do it to me every time / Oh, the redhead said you shred the cello, and I’m jello, baby.”

  10. wow! thanks, jake. i’ll never listen to pinkerton the same way again. revelations like this are so great after loving (and/or tiring of) a record for some time. i know some of you are anti-u2, but the same thing happened to me when someone told me that “until the end of the world” was a conversation between jesus and judas. it just opened up another whole level to the song.

  11. OK, i posted this on Friday in the boards section but will post here now (finally have time to do so).

    IMO, In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea can be considered a concept album in the same loose way Pinkerton is considered here. I think Aeroplane is a much stronger album and has to be considered ahead of Pinkerton as the best concept album of the 1990’s. However, I am not saying Pinkerton is nto a good album…have it and love it. Just don’t think it’s as strong…in fact, if i think about it for a while, I might be able to come up with a couple others from the 1990’s that surpass Pinkerton too from the concept album perspective.

  12. I think Aeroplane is, in some way, the most perfect album I’ve ever heard. I think it’s artistically superior to Exile and Pinkerton (which I also love) and in fact to most albums ever made. In a certain way. I’m not saying they’re the best band or best artist, but if there even are albums superior to it, we’re talking a handful, by people who ARE the best artists: Dylan, Neil Young, Beatles, Miles Davis. I mean, even Jimi and Zeppelin have a clunker or two on all theirs.

    To call it a “concept” album almost diminishes its power, though it’s not off the mark. Rather, why I think it merits such high praise is how wholly integral it is as an album, with its own musical and lyrical language and emotional arc, all completely interwoven, capable of utterly gut-wrenching pathos, anger and euphoric joy, escapism and fearless confrontation with reality.

    Etc.

  13. I’ll give it a whirl this weekend…too busy to write out an extended explanation. I didn’t want to ignore the invitation…

    CAT

  14. hey barabajagal,

    care to explicate In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? That record (mainly Mangum’s lyrics) is dense as all hell. What’s he talking about? I don’t have the sleeve (just a burned copy), so maybe I’m missing some piece to the puzzle? I love the music, but I have no idea what it’s all about. All I can glean is some sexual/adolescent frustration and confusion.

  15. Here’s a concept album for you: Art Brut’s Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll. It ‘s a stretch but bear with me. The story starts with our main character Eddie Argos forming a band (Formed a Band.) He probably formed this band as a way to cope with a tough breakup with his first girlefirend, Emily Kane, who, although he wishes well, he still can’t get past this tough breakup (Emily Kane.) He is depressed, and when he sees his brother having fun (My Little brother)he is very jealous. He thinks he’s over Emily Kane, but when he is with a women again, he can’t get it up, because of “the way he thinks.” (Rusted Guns of Milan) He still loves Emily, as shown by hius reaction to the modern art paintings in a museum that give him pangs of sadness, but then makes him want to rock out. (Modern Art) He finally thinks he’s past EK when he finds a new gf, who he bangs all the time (Good weekend)But, as evidence by his flirtations and pill-buying from another girl, he’s still struggling with getting past his first love. He also can’t stand to listen to love songs, specifically the Velvet Underground. (Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll) Now, his stress is causing him to be a agressive and he gets in a fight, which begins to put his new realtionship on the rocks, I assume. (Fight!)Now, with his new relationship enduring this turmoil, he considers leaving England for LA (Moving to LA) Finally, his new squeeze breaks it off, probably because of his inability to cope with EK (Bad Weekend.) He now realizes he made a mistake going into this relationship, and recognizes he can’t get past EK (Stand Down.) His new band now becomes a success, and despite making a considerable amount of dough, specifically 18,000 lira, he can’t cover up the fact he isn’t over EK with his loads of cash (18,000 Lira.)The end. I guess it’s kinda a cliffhanger, but I’m just reding too much into this.

  16. I think Pinkerton is hands down probably the best album out of the 90’s. I don’t know really what else to say and I don’t have time because I’m at work…but it’s a damn good album. I can listen to it over and over and have for years.

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