Nevermind “Nevermind”: “Pinkerton” also has an important birthday Saturday

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The talk of Nevermind‘s 20th anniversary September 24 seems to have been marked everywhere, from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, from NPR to the blogs of fashion photographers, who have christened Kurt Cobain’s daughter with Courtney Love, Frances Bean, a new fashion icon. We’ve already heard about how, after it was released in 1991, Nevermind sold millions of copies, brought angst and abstract lyrics to the mainstream, and made the music industry—as it was called then—turn its attention to independent music. Yadda, etc. and so on, and then by 1996, the Butthole Surfers’ Electriclarryland was selling 500,000 copies on Capitol Records.

But talk of this important anniversary shouldn’t overshadow the also very important birthday of a record exactly five years later, one that didn’t sell a lot of copies straightaway: Weezer’s second album Pinkerton, which was released five years to the day after Nevermind—15 years ago this Saturday. While Pinkerton didn’t change the way people listen to music—or more importantly, the way A&R reps pick talent—in retrospect, it did mark a crossroads in rock music.

Two years before Pinkerton, Weezer had released the Blue Album to commercial success and critical acclaim, marrying the Kiss-indebted riffage of the ’70s, to the New Wave of the ’80s (thanks to production by The Cars’ Rick Ocasek), to the post-grunge sound of the ’90s, as pioneered by Nevermind and the growing cadre of crossover acts.

But after its success, Weezer’s frontman Rivers Cuomo went some kind of crazy. The band’s follow-up was originally intended to be a rock opera centered on characters named Wuan and Dondo. It was to be called Escape from the Black Hole. (The parts of it that were released are, for fans only, really sick.) Those plans were scrapped as Cuomo enrolled at Harvard, where studied music composition and literature. The songs that would make it onto Pinkerton were a combination of ones written before the Blue Album, and new ones.

Unlike Nevermind, Pinkerton was considered a flop. It peaked at #19 on the charts. Gone from Weezer’s second effort were the layers of pop revivalism that had characterized the band’s debut. What remained was a uncomfortable mash of silliness and extreme darkness, like on "Why Bother?": "It’s just sexual attraction / Not something real so I’d rather keep whackin’," which is followed by a sincere chorus, "Why bother? it’s gonna hurt me / It’s gonna kill when you desert me." So too with "El Scorcho," which begins with dumb ululations, runs through a couple of minutes of jibberish, and then offers this jarringly sincere crescendo: "Maybe you’re scared to say I’m falling for you." 

Starting with "Tired of Sex," Pinkerton is a vicious record—even if not as vicious as Nevermind: formally complex, deeply confessional, thoughtful and damned angry. If it has any missteps, it is the desperately sensitive "Butterfly," where Rivers alone, on an acoustic guitar, sings a song…called "Butterfly."

Sure, taken from a distance, a lot of stuff on Pinkerton feels silly. Cuomo, for his part, thought Pinkerton sucked, and would later say of his masterpiece in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, "It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone and feeling incredibly great and cathartic about it, and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself." But for at least one preteen who was still jazzed about the Blue Album, man, did this album fucking rock.

It’s worth considering Pinkerton alongside Nevermind because, amid all this Kurt-worship, people aren’t talking about is how grunge soon lost its way. There were good years for grunge, but the top-40-ification of the genre also paved the way for some unforgiveable noise. See Staind, Puddle of Mudd, and, worst of all, Creed. You might even call the rap-rock fad a mongrel breed of grunge and hip-hop from the late 1980s.

But for its generation of listeners, Pinkerton took the anger that made grunge so compelling, sent it to Harvard, made it study Puccini (whose Madame Butterfly forms Pinkerton‘s thematic backbone) alongside girl group lyrics, and turned it into something less drug-addled, more personal, and not so damn cool. In short, it made a lot of people, no matter how ugly they considered their feelings, think that they too could be in a famous rock band.

That paved the way for a revolution in its own right, called emo. The grunge acts of recent history (see above) haven’t been nearly as compelling as acts like, for example, Panic at the Disco or My Chemical Romance—which are not great bands by any stretch, but at least brought an emotional complexity to MTV and top-40 radio.

Weezer’s second album is a sidenote in the context of Nevermind‘s revolution. But for those of us who were too young to understand Nevermind when it came out—it came out just days before my sixth birthday—Pinkerton hit us where it hurt five years later. Judging by how its reissue was received late last year, it still does.

Happy 15th Birthday, Pinkerton!

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