Some Songs Considered #052: A dive into 1996 with Weezer and PJ Harvey
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
April is a particularly fertile month for music writers, as we are gifted with an over-abundance of album releases. This month saw the release of the likes of Weezer’s 10th (and 4th self titled) album and PJ Harvey’s 11th album, The Hope Six Demolition Project.
However, unfortunately for yours truly, both these “notable” releases are from admittedly very influential artists who “I just never had the time to get into.”
So, in lieu of enduring yet another season of flack from my musical-loving peers asking “What else could you possibly have been doing in your youth while Weezer was releasing their best music?” and “how is someone like you not into PJ Harvey?” I’ve decided to skip right over the modestly-reviewed (and locally controversial) new albums from these legendary artists and go straight to the source of their supposed greatness, in an effort to retroactively understand how they’ve grown such dedicated followings.
The obvious catch here is that I’m long past the mid-90’s, thus lack any context of their lengthy careers and familiarity with their musical personas…
Even so, I took this past week to dive into 1996’s Pinkerton and 1995’s To Bring You My Love like a newborn babe – a fresh pair of eyes, ignorant to this music that I should have at least listened to once in the past 20 years.
My guiding questions were:
“Is it good?”
“Is it still relevant?”
“Can it be discovered and enjoyed outside of its reputation and the context of the artist’s career?”
What could possibly go wrong?
IS IT GOOD?
But Weezer’s Pinkerton is very much a time and a place: a desperate and self-deprecating youth in the late 90s/early 2000s, specifically white and male. Still, I enjoyed the unprecedented honestly and heartfelt lyricism of Rivers Cuomo, and the band’s cultural relevance as trailblazers for the nerdy underdog is still undeniable.
Musically, Pinkerton is infectious, upbeat, poignant, and sonically diverse pop-punk. The wailing guitar solo in the opener “Tired of Sex” immediately establishes that despite the full-throated commitment to a scrappy, DIY garage sound, the band has technical chops. Ultimately though, Pinkerton is a personality driven album.
Unconventional touches like the opening to “El Scorcho” help distinguish it from the hundreds of musical replicants that followed, and even though I was aware of Weezer’s softer side, tracks like “Across the Sea” and “Butterfly” still struck me as lovely borderline-folk romantic sentiments.
To Bring You My Love: Yes, very.
I didn’t mean to have such a strong opinions of one album over the other, but To Bring You My Love is a piercing, revelatory work of art from start to finish. The first 70 seconds of To Bring You My Love ignited more fire in me than the entire 34 minutes of Pinkerton.
Thematically, PJ Harvey and Weezer foil each other; whereas Weezer exemplifies the beta-male’s hopelessly romantic quest for love, PJ exemplifies an alpha-women’s acknowledgment and spite towards love’s pitfalls. I respect Pinkerton for going so deep down that hole that it borders on a concept album, but To Bring You My Love is undeniably deeper and more universal.
“Working for the Man” highlights the unsettling religiosity of love; a consistent theme through the album. The desperation and sense of suffocation in this album is constant but Harvey’s defiance is also front and center.
The quiet intimacy of tracks like “I Think I’m A Mother” are juxtaposed with uncontainable rock sections like “Long Snake Moan,” and the effect is nothing short of thrilling.
IS IT STILL RELEVANT?
Pinkerton represents a specific genre and personality archetype that peaked and dominated between 1998-2005. And Weezer articulates it to perfection. In fact, the album reminded me of the valuable nuances and quirky insights of the neurotic, bumbling misfits of pop-punk.
Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of Weezer’s brand of pop-punk and emo was ultimately what also left me feeling unsatisfied. The seminal nature of this album isn’t lost on me, but my god this genre has really been beaten to death since then. Pinkerton is littered with outdated 90s sentiments that either fall harmlessly flat (“I asked you to go to the Green Day concert/You said you never heard of them”) or register as a problematic (the fetishization of Asian women throughout, an outdated Chasing Amy-style infatuation with lesbian culture).
To Bring You My Love: Yes
Unlike Pinkerton, the dark clarity and guitar driven blues that unites To Bring You My Love is not specific to a time or place. The power of PJ Harvey’s words and her strong personality is comparable to Rivers Cuomo’s, but whereas Weezer’s level of detail and intimacy dates Pinkerton, PJ’s ferocity and anger is current and makes it hard to believe this came out as early as it did.
Every other track is a sparse, but uniquely aggressive, statement of self. The title track “To Bring You My Love” and “Meet Ze Monster” prove that, in contrast to Weezer’s jangly and comparably obvious pop punk, an artist can get just as effectively loud with a lot less behind them.
CAN IT BE DISCOVERED AND ENJOYED OUTSIDE OF ITS REPUTATION AND THE CONTEXT OF THE ARTIST’S CAREER?
Now I’m not trying to write off Weezer exclusively through a comparison to PJ Harvey. That feels a little arbitrary, despite the proximity of these two releases. But either way, the smothering and excessive influence of Weezer on late 90s-early 2000s rock/emo/pop/punk overshadowed any organic effect the album would’ve had on me. Everyone’s suburban brother or boy-crush tried to be in a awful Weezer-style band, and we can all agree nerd culture has become successfully mainstream.
Pinkerton, and Weezer in general, may have been a crucial cause in the takeover of manic-pixie-nerd-boys in rock music, but the wider audience in 2016 deserves something new.
To Bring You My Love: Yes
On the other hand, PJ Harvey’s alternative, experimental rock, while not untapped throughout the decade, was never so excessively adopted and remains unique in 2016.
Her influence, while clear in recent releases from artists like Savages, Courtney Barnett and especially Torres, does not feel like it opened the floodgate for decades of watered down copies. Her voice is uncompromising and distinct on stripped down tracks like “Telco,” and the arrangements of her songs are just inventive enough to be experimental, making any direct comparison to another artists an elusive task.
Before entirely tearing down the cult of Weezer, I remind myself again that the group was once a trailblazer for the underdog, but I nonetheless feel cheated most peers in my musical bubble (starting in high school and continuing until this very week) have been gushing over Pinkerton this whole time like it’s The Catcher in the Rye, whereas only a handful of insightful individuals since then have mentioned that it I should be listening to PJ Harvey.
Is this evidence to the fact that most of my music for the past 20 years has been fed to me by desperate-ass middle class white boys? Yes. Even worse, is the seemingly universal cultural appreciation of Pinkerton due in part to the narrow demographic of men running the music industry and dominating the music media? Probably also yes.
Agree or disagree? Please send all hatred to my Twitter @LindsayHogan88. However, I won’t be able to hear your whining over the sounds of this lady’s guitar:
Random (Prince) Tracks from Random Nerds:
“The Beautiful Ones”
– Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
When I was in college, I, like many college students, spent a fair amount of my free time watching movies semi-ironically with my friends. And I remember sophomore year, when on the couch in my buddy’s dorm room, I watched Purple Rain for the first time (after “purifying ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka,” of course).
I remember laughing at all the absurd Prince-isms, and the quotes my friends and I still drop into casual conversations (“Nobody digs your music but yourself!”), and I remember, vividly, seeing the “Beautiful Ones” scene for the first time…
And that moment, halfway through the song, when the keyboard slips into that ominous screech and Prince warps this Apollonia-enticing jam into a ferocious, visceral performance that smashes any preconceived notions one might have gathered along the way.
But that’s the thing about the beautiful ones, they’re born to smash the picture.
Always, every time.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover”
– Justin McCarthy (@JustinSMcCarthy)
“Give them the hits first, and then you can do what you want.”
This was Prince’s advice to a forlorn Andre 3000 in 2014, after the first hotly-anticipated OutKast reunion performance at Coachella sent the rapper shame spiraling and soul-searching in his L.A. hotel room. And while 3 Stacks was certainly not the first high-profile artist on a career precipice to receive guidance from The Purple One, the brand of advice seems especially revelatory, even amid all the fantastically interesting and edifying tidbits surfacing and resurfacing in the wake of the pop star’s death.
“Give them the hits” – Prince had to learn this the hard way.
After his middling 1978 debut album For You did triple-tinfoil numbers (peaking at a scant No. 163 on the Billboard charts), the Richie Finestras# at Warner Brothers demanded, in no uncertain terms, a quick and popular follow-up.
The thing about For You, though: it is a Prince album. And not in the sense that, like, Irresistible is a Jessica Simpson album, like it’s a Prince album. So you have to imagine the 21-year-old (not purple yet, just green) took this whole thing pretty hard. But what did he do in this sink-or-swim situation, with his young career on the line? He took the rock, drove to the hoop, and dunked on us# – “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a top 40 smash, and really, in what universe would it ever be otherwise; it is joyous, hyper-distilled disco-funk perfection. It resonated with people, and it still does today.
All the great ones – from The Beatles to Kanye – perfect their mediums prior to disrupting them. They have to, because pop music is by necessity a game before it’s art; you play the game, do it well, and then you get to make something new. Prince didn’t want to bother – he wanted to go straight to the “blowing our minds with new sounds, new forms and new ways of embodying music” part. But when push came to shove, he rolled his eyes, dug his clogs in, and won us all over first.
In a perfect world he would never have to, but as it stands, you have to earn your pancakes.
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