A common scenario: you’re at a bar with a friend you’ve know for maybe a couple years or so. Friend’s a little shy, but a decent person, good to talk to. Of course, this friend ends up getting drunk – very drunk – and starts telling you things that you just never wanted to hear. “Cheryl broke up with me because I couldn’t… please her.” “I can’t sleep at night unless someone’s there next to me.” “You know what? You’re probably one of the best friends I’ve got, man.” And inevitably, said friend apologizes after everything, which somehow only makes things worse: “Oh man, I’m sorry, that came out wrong.” “Augh, jeez, I need to shut up.” “Dude, I’m so sorry. I didn’t wanna tell you that.”
That’s the scenario I envision every time I hear “Tired of Sex,” the first song on Weezer’s second album. Hearing Rivers Cuomo muttering “I’m tired / so tired / I’m tired of having sex” sounds like such a brazen, frank confession that I immediately feel guilty just hearing it. And things only get worse from there – after Cuomo lists off various women he’s had meaningless affairs with (by name, might I add) he ends the verse with an almost embarrassing half-muttered line: “Oh, why can’t I be making love come true?” Then the guitar kicks in, the music swells, and Cuomo lets out a sudden, uncomfortable scream that only confirms for the audience that he’s let us in on something he really, really shouldn’t have.
While that sudden scream is probably a good summation of Cuomo’s anguish on this record, that anguish might come from a recognition of his own pathetic nature as much as the lady troubles that plague the rest of the songs here. “I’m beat / beet red / ashamed of what I said” he spouts out immediately after said outburst, already laying the self-pity on good and heavy. He continues with “I’m sorry! / Here I go! / I know I’m a sinner, but I can’t say no!!,” one of Cuomo’s many failed attempts throughout Pinkerton to cancel out one of his train-wreck girl rantings with an even more desperate, revealing apology. Just from hearing this one song, the listener is torn between feeling bad for the guy or just outright loathing him.
Knowing this, it’s not hard to see why Pinkerton didn’t do so hot back in ’96, neither critically nor commercially. To be frank, Rivers Cuomo can come across as a self-important, self-pitying asshole in almost every song here. Throughout this album’s 10 songs he slobbers and obsesses over girls he can’t have, freaks out and scares away girls that he can have, and worse yet demeans and betrays women he already has. A lot of it comes from Cuomo’s delivery; while a decent portion of the lyrics on Pinkerton are your usual “I love you but I can’t have you” romantic tropes, Cuomo sings them with such bitter desperation that they turn from love-song cliches to bizarre accusations. When Rivers sings “I’m a lot like you” in the chorus of “El Scorcho,” it sounds less like he’s trying to connect to the object of his affection and more like he’s trying to pin his own fucked-up nature on her; “You’re just as much of a shitfuck as I am, so don’t look down on me!” he might as well say. When he sings “I think I’d be good for you / and you’d be good for me,” he might as well be spitting the lyrics into the girl’s face. Worse yet, he even throws his confused emotions at an 18-year-old Japanese girl who wrote him a nice fan letter: “Why are you so far away from me?? / I need help, and you’re way across the sea!” And the bridge is even more bizarre, with the exclamation “It’s all your fault, momma / It’s all your fault!!”, a line that comes out of nowhere in the context of the song. Listening to Rivers throw these accusing, bizarre lines at his subjects – and his audience – makes for a consistently uncomfortable listening experience.
But what makes it work? How can such a cretinous little white-boy snit like Rivers Cuomo spill his wrongheaded emotions all over this record and make it great? Well, simply put, Weezer’s Pinkerton – and Cuomo himself – sound just as fucked-up and stupid as every human being on the planet that just happens to fall in love with the wrong person. God, I hate to admit that, but it’s true; when I hear Cuomo squeal and moan lyrics like “I’m shakin’ at your touch / I like you way too much” in “Falling For You,” or “I wish I could get my head out of the sand / ‘cuz I think we make a good team / and you can keep my fingernails clean” in “El Scorcho,” I’m taken back to all those awkward, stupid crushes I couldn’t shake back in high school no matter how hard I tried. We’ve all been there, and Rivers is unrelentingly honest about every awkward, seemingly disposable detail.
Honesty, perhaps, is the key to Pinkerton‘s lyrical success, and perhaps why I (and many other people) find Cuomo’s wrecked prose so much more effective here than with, say, any pop-emo band that’s tried to ape Pinkerton since its release (and by extension pretty much everything Weezer’s released since). It’s that drunken confession analogy all over again – Rivers reveals awkward little details in his lyrics that just make you say, “Oh, Rivers. I’m sorry.” “Across the Sea,” the centerpiece of the record, contains what might be the most revealing lyrics of Cuomo’s career; singing directly to an 18-year-old Japanese fan, he reads her letter almost verbatim in cutely broken English: “You are eighteen-year-old-girl / who live in small city in Japan.” He becomes so obsessed with this letter that he becomes enamored with everything about it, even the paper itself: “They don’t make stationery like this were I’m from / so fragile, so refined.” He even describes some disturbing – but utterly human – actions: “So I sniff / and I lick / your envelope, and fall to little pieces every time.” It’s such an awful, specific, and dangerously private line that it sounds ripped from a diary Cuomo never intended anybody to read – and yet it cuts to the heart of things so effectively that the listener can’t help but sympathize (if they aren’t creeped out first). “Pink Triangle,” easily the sweetest song here and maybe the best (and least commercially successful) single Weezer ever released, reveals these same uncomfortable truths with a more humorous spin: “She would never be with me / were I the last girl on earth” and “Everyone’s a little queer / why can’t she be a little straight?” might be the funniest, cutest pleas ever written about a lesbian crush. And the chorus might be the most direct and honest on the album: “I’m dumb, she’s a lesbian / I thought I had found the one / We were good as married in my mind / but married in my mind’s no good.” If those lines might make one feel uncomfortable, it’s because they are a scarily accurate assessment of hopeless, fantasy-tale love.
So yes, we’ve got some of Rivers Cuomo’s most uncompromising, awkward lyrics ever recorded. But what makes Pinkerton a true messed-up classic is its music. While it isn’t a far cry from the slick power pop Weezer deployed just two years earlier on The Blue Album, the guitars sound much more squealy, jumpy, and unnerving, oftentimes pulling off the remarkable feat of sounding as awkward as Cuomo’s fractured singing. The main riff in “El Scorcho” twists around Cuomo like a cruel joke; “Getchoo” revvs up and down like a car that won’t start; “Tired of Sex” dispenses with awkward keyboard flourishes and a heavily distorted guitar solo that just doesn’t sound right. “No Other One,” my favorite song on Pinkerton, might be the best musical interpretation of failed love I’ve heard; it picks up with layers of guitars screeching and pulling themselves apart, and once Rivers comes in with an impassioned yelp the song transforms into a dramatic, balls-on-fire ballad that acts like the sequel to Weezer’s own “No One Else” off The Blue Album. Rivers, like usual, is stuck in love with the wrong person, to the point that he can’t even try to be with someone better: “No, there is no other one / no, there is no other one / I can’t have any other one / well, I would, now I never could with one.” It’s an anthem, in its own perverse way – one that states, definitively, that he will throw himself headlong into a pointless relationship purely out of fear of being alone. Once we hear Cuomo yelp along with that giant guitar riff at the end of the song, we know that he’s never going to change his mind.
“No Other One” shows Rivers as a weak, stupid human being who can’t muster up the strength to abandon his obsession. He doesn’t apologize for it, doesn’t try to rationalize it, doesn’t try to tell the listener that he’ll be ok in the future; in all his self-obsessed glory, Rivers offers the perfect picture of the stupid kid inside of all of us. If we feel uncomfortable listening to Pinkerton, it’s because we’re all drudging up those silly high school concepts of love that, no matter how hard we try, never truly go away. I’d say that, more than anything else, Pinkerton is one of the best tragic love albums I’ve heard because it spills itself out into the listener’s lap without compromise and somehow manages to filter all that desperation through accessible, powerful pop tunes. Nobody’s done it better since – not emo, not confessional indie, not even Weezer themselves. I first bought this album when I was eighteen, and it made a lot of sense to me – and I’m forced to admit that, at twenty-one, it still makes too much sense.