When Rivers Cuomo and Weezer released “Pinkerton” in 1996, the follow-up to their massively successful debut record was greeted with grunts and brickbats from fans and critics alike. Rolling Stone magazine even named it the second-worst album of the year.
At the time, it was not hard to understand why “Pinkerton” was so poorly received. The polished pop-slickness of the band’s self-titled debut was replaced by a grungy ambience with rougher sonics and confessional lyrics. And while the record’s “live” feel was shocking enough for Weezer fans, it was the literal, lovelorn lyrics that really grated listeners.
Cuomo sang of feeling “dumb” after falling in love with a girl at Harvard who turned out to be a lesbian. This corresponded with an “18-year-old girl who live in small city in Japan” and wondered how she “touched” and “cursed” herself because of Cuomo’s unavailability.
“Pinkerton” was “emo”-tional before the term became a calling card for dramatically depressed youngsters awash in self-pity and eyeliner. The criticism got to Cuomo, who was 26 at the time, and he didn’t release another Weezer record until 2001. But even then he wasn’t the same, and to this day he writes emotionally detached songs.
“Alone III: The Pinkerton Years” is the third in a series of Cuomo “Alone” albums that compile old demos and alternate takes he did with Weezer and independently.
Unlike the previous two installments, which lacked any common thread, “The Pinkerton Years” bring together songs written and recorded during what is perceived as Cuomo’s artistic peak of 1994-97. That was when the musician went into artistic seclusion of sorts — painting his bedroom black and growing a lumberjack beard, and trying to transform Weezer from a light power-pop act into a darker band that could be taken seriously. Most fans, and certainly critics, would agree that the band’s music has fallen off the deep end since then.
“The Pinkerton Years” is thus a much-welcome reminder of what Weezer used to be, and why so many fans jumped ship after it started overloading its albums and videos with gimmicky collaborations with rappers, Playboy playmates, Top-40 hitmakers and Kenny G.
It isn’t a brilliant collection of private moments, as the title would suggest, but it is a needed reminder of a time when Cuomo was able to turn out quality, completed songs.
“The Pinkerton Years” is gloriously uncomfortable as a mishmash of conflicted, tortured rock star proclamations. There are the literal longings and storytelling mode of “Pinkerton” mixed with boom box-recorded snippets of ideas, as well as more than a few rough demos and sketches of songs that eventually made it onto “Pinkerton.”
In other words, it’s not a great record by itself, but in the context of the mid-90s, it is an amazingly fascinating listen.
Opening with the rough a capella of “I’m So Lonely,” a 19-second rough take of glorious harmonies that brings to mind both the Beach Boys and gospel music, the compilation immediately sets its tortured, melancholic mood. In a demo version of the Pinkerton track “Getchoo,” Cuomo piles on the fuzz with multitracked lyrics and guitar and bass distortion.
“Susanne” is power-pop at its finest, bringing together a sing-along chorus between simple verses. When Cuomo sings “Even Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose/When I call you put them all on hold,” it becomes clear why those who love the band really love the band, and those who don’t revile its take on simplified pop rock.
It isn’t a coincidence that the best songs on “The Pinkerton Years” are the ones that were eventually produced and released commercially. They are the most fully formed and comprise the best melodies.
“Tired of Sex” is one of those that arrives in completed form, even with the exact solo that would appear on “Pinkerton.” Adding to the charm, the song seems sourced from a worn-out tape, drowning out completely at certain points.
The record is divided into four sections, with its first half comprising songs that were to form the abandoned “Songs From the Black Hole” record. These are mostly sketches of ideas that range from good to baffling in nature.
“Oh No, This Is Not for Me,” all 39 seconds of it, shimmers with a hands-in-the-air feel, while “She’s Had a Girl” is an acoustic confessional dripped with minimalist piano tinkling. A short, vocals-only version of the standout outtake “Longtime Sunshine” peaks as the best of this session.
The “Fulton Avenue Suite” section is the roughest of the bunch. Chock-full of frustrated acoustic confessionals such as “I’m So Lonely on a Saturday Night” and “Oh God, I’m Hungry,” it sees Cuomo at his most raw, though not exactly inspired. This section feels more like aural therapy than a conventional singer-songwriter offering, and ultimately makes for the most intriguing part of the whole “Alone” catalogue.
The record ends with a log recorded by Cuomo a day after a surgery intended to lengthen his right leg, in which the singer speaks of “A Glorious Moment” where he was able to “pee by [himself]” after a long while. This sees Cuomo at his most fragile and real, something that due to the critical bashing of “Pinkerton” in 1996 we would not see again.