Released: September 24th, 1996
Highlights: The Good Life, El Scorcho, Pink Triangle, Butterfly
The unwritten manual of good songwriting dictates that it is the artist’s job to transform the storm of feelings that lies within the human soul into digestible phrases. Songwriters must filter primal, brutal, and intense instincts and turn them into poetry – it doesn’t matter if it is abstract or straightforward. “Pinkerton”, Weezer’s second album and the successor to a brilliant collection of heavy pop rock tracks, is unusual in how it shuns those rules; there are no barriers between what has been put onto paper and what Rivers Cuomo, the band’s creative leader, was feeling at the time he forged these songs, which makes it as honest of a record as the rock genre has produced. The result of a self-pitying insecure geek that was suddenly thrown into musical stardom, “Pinkerton” is in equal measures awkward and messy; it is frank, absurdly specific, and intense, as if it were produced and published without much consideration, making it the rock and roll equivalent of a message sent by a rejected lover in a drunken stupor to the one who broke their heart.
Considering its context, it is not surprising “Pinkerton” is best described as embarrassing. Likewise, it is not shocking to discover that Cuomo himself regretted, and avoided, the album in the years following its release. In the self-explanatory “Tired of Sex”, he rattles off the name of his daily dates and laments he cannot find true love; in “Across the Sea”, he talks about an eighteen-year-old fan from Japan with whom he had been exchanging letters, proclaiming he wishes he could touch her and blatantly stating he thinks about how she gets intimate with herself; and in “Pink Triangle”, he openly discusses the disappointment of discovering the target of his affection is a lesbian. Cuomo shows absolutely no restraint in revealing to listeners the ghosts, fears, anguishes, and failures he faces, and the language he uses is so direct, that cringe-inducing lyrics such as “I asked you to go to the Green Day concert / You said you never heard of them / How cool is that? / So I went to your room and read your diary” are the norm rather than the exception.
All of those characteristics make “Pinkerton” an utter unmitigated disaster. This is an artist having a complete mental breakdown; only, instead of doing it in private or while running away from paparazzi, he decided to burn it onto a record. And that is precisely why it is so fantastic; the album could have easily come off as the shallow ramblings of a young adult who remains an adolescent in numerous matters, but it – for some miracle – lands like a punch to the stomach. “Pinkerton” is punk in how it constantly baffles listeners and gives a middle finger to the controlled emotional mindset society expects, and in that sense it is incredibly courageous. Meanwhile, it is also somewhat emo, but not in the derogatory sense the word acquired during the turn of the century. It does not wear eyeliner and carry sad songs because it is commercially viable, Rivers and his band-mates are too nerdy for those two acts; it talks about its feelings because they are just too overwhelming.
On top of that, “Pinkerton” climbs to the upper echelons of music because it rocks with vengeance in its heart. Save for the beautiful “Butterfly”, the acoustic and introspective closer, the album is accompanied by guitars that are played loudly and distorted to the limit that separates music from noise. Its instrumentation, thereby, lives up to the raw intensity of its lyrics, and every single track is populated by more than one inescapable hook, such as “El Scorcho”, which has a wandering and weird guitar riff; an orgasmic chorus; and a bridge played at top speed and delivered with furious anger. In later years, Weezer would – sadly – become a caricature of its former self; in “Pinkerton”, though, they were as true as a band can be, and – as a consequence – they gave the world their messy masterpiece.
Album: His ‘N’ Hers
Released: April 18th, 1994
Highlights: Joyriders, Lipgloss, Babies, Do You Remember the First Time?
It is strange to think “His ‘N’ Hers” is not Pulp’s actual debut. That is because before its release, in 1994, the band had spent a whopping eleven years, and three albums, meandering through an assortment of songs that, despite being original in the way they transited from folk introspection to acoustic balladry adorned by keyboards and electronic elements, did not go anywhere. “His ‘N’ Hers” is, in fact, so different from what came before it, even though it has hints of being a consolidation of previous experiments, that Pulp might as well have changed its name altogether, like Marc Bolan did with his legendary group, Tyrannosaurus Rex, between “A Beard of Stars” and “T. Rex” when he transformed from a folk bard into a glam rock god. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what led Pulp to undertake the magnificent metamorphosis that finds consolidation in “His ‘N’ Hers” (although its snake-like guitar lines indicate that Suede’s early output, namely their initial singles and their self-titled debut may have been a strong influence), but, as soon as it hit, the group was rightfully propelled to Britpop royalty.
Where Suede’s Brett Anderson wrote about those who were seen as deranged, whether sexually or emotionally, by society; and Blur’s Damon Albarn revived The Kinks’ character studies; Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker deconstructed human passion, looking at love as nothing but an urge for sex, and he did so by looking at that subject in the most bare-bones and cynical way possible. He, therefore, stripped sex of all its emotional attachments, dealing with it in all the awkwardness of two naked human beings facing one another in a poorly lit room, and seeing all the romance that precedes it as uncomfortable preliminaries. Pulp’s magic, and the ultimate gift of “His ‘N’ Hers”, is turning all of that cynicism into something completely sexy and making it seem as if nothing in the world could possibly matter more, or carry more weight, than that sexual chase; and the album does indeed sound huge and dramatic.
There are two keys for that immensity: the beats of Jarvis’ synthesizers and the overwhelmingly colorful waves that wash over the listeners whenever Candida Doyle presses the keys of her keyboards. Pulp’s music stands between a jam-packed stadium and a crowded dance floor without truly belonging to any of them: it is big yet intimate; dancy yet way too decadent to make people forget about the mess that life is. The verses are half-spoken and half-sung by a whispering Jarvis Cocker, and when the choruses hit it is as if some cosmic musical dam has been blasted open: the music booms, the guitars come in with ringing sinuous lines, the keyboards and beats combine to drown listeners in their layers, and a barrage of pop hooks is unleashed. The formula may be reused too often, but the melodies are so great, the lyrics so witty, and the rhythms so irresistible that it does not really matter; and even though a couple of tunes fall flat, “His ‘N’ Hers” is almost always operating at the peak of its powers.
Whether it is rocking in full force in “Joyriders”, where a group of teenage vandals rides around town in a car damaging private property and looking for girls willing to join them on their trip to the local reservoir; being playful and delivering punchlines in “Babies”, where a girl and a boy hide inside a closet to spy on what the girl’s sister is doing locked in the bedroom with her male friend; or reaching for anthemic electronic heights in “Do You Remember the First Time?”, where the desperate singer pleads his lover not to give in to her ex-partner’s advances; “His ‘N’ Hers” is always a fantastic listen, alternating sexual tension with witty resolutions and representing, with style, the most awkward and sexy side of the Britpop movement.
Album: Peace Trail
Artist: Neil Young
Released: December 9th, 2016
Highlights: Peace Trail, Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders, Glass Accident
Unquestionably, there is a certain beauty to the fact Neil Young, currently seventy-one years old, is still an extremely productive musician. While most of his generational peers have retired from music altogether, lived the past few decades comfortably sitting on the catalog they amassed during their heydays, or released new works at a sluggish pace, Young gave the world a whopping seven records of original material between 2010 and 2016. Detractors claim those releases are mostly lackluster, saying many of the songs and lyrics could have used more time and attention, and condemn Young for focusing on silly gimmicks, such as recording with a full-blown orchestra (“Storytone”) or inside a restored Voice-o-Graph from the 1940s (“A Letter Home”). Whereas fans admire Young’s restless spirit and browse through the numerous songs in search of gems, which in some records are sparse (“Storytone”) but in others appear in enough numbers to lift the album that houses them to greatness (“Psychedelic Pill”).
“Peace Trail” is the latest link added to that chain of productivity, and, unfortunately, by all imaginable measures, it gives fuel to those who see Neil Young as an old man whose idiosyncrasy has been amplified to extreme lengths due to the passing of time. Quite simply, very little about it is redeeming. Never has Young’s recently developed philosophy of recording albums within a few days been more blatant. Lyrically, “Peace Trail” is so undercooked it feels like much of what is sung was improvised on the spot; there is no poetry whatsoever, just a collection of sentences that could have been put together by anyone else in the world. In “Cant’ Stop Workin”, where Neil apparently tries to justify his invariably active persona, he sings “Well I can’t stop workin’ cause I like to work / When nothing else is going on”; and in “My New Robot”, he delivers a heavy-handed warning about how we are being controlled by technology by saying “My life has been so lucky / The package has arrived / I got my new robot / From amazon dot com”, and one cannot help but wonder if this is indeed the artist that talked about that same theme twenty-four years ago in the brilliant, disturbing, robotic, and poetic “Sample and Hold”.
The biggest crime committed by “Peace Trail”, though, does not lie in its lyrics – anyone closely following Neil Young knows he has been struggling with them for a while. The true disappointment comes in the songs’ arrangements and their melodies. The former are bare and simplistic, making it quite obvious Neil Young did not give his musicians and producer enough time to work on these songs, turning the album into a continuous fog of standard drumming, simple guitar strums, and shy bass lines. Such stripped-down setup could be forgiven if it served to highlight the beauty carried by the songs, but in supporting material that is weak (with the exception of the title track and “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) it actually reveals how poor the melodies are: they exhale the same laziness found in the lyrics, coming off as repetitive, uninspired, and hastily assembled.
For many years, “Landing on Water”, released in 1986 and in the midst of a decade when Young was sued by his own label for not sounding like himself, was considered to be, by many, the nadir of the artist’s career; a point in which the worst side of his freewheeling artistic behavior, which had also taken him to musical heights only achieved by a handful of human beings, came to the surface. It is hard to say if “Peace Trail” owns that dubious honor from now, but one thing is for sure: like a rant from a lovable grandparent who is losing touch with the world, it is strange, weird, awkward, and terrible. The old-man version of Neil Young can still do much better than this, as recent releases (such as 2015’s “The Monsanto Years”) have shown.
Album: Fun House
Artist: The Stooges
Released: July 7th, 1970
Highlights: Down on the Street, Loose, 1970, Fun House
Although The Stooges’ self-titled debut is gigantic in historical terms, for it is usually appointed, along with the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”, as the albums that spawned punk rock and all kinds of music that are played with more focus on instinct and anger than technique and calculations, it is a flawed product. The Stooges became notorious for their ferocious live performances and, when taken into the studio and produced by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale, much of that energy was lost. The problem was not the quality of the songs (they were pretty excellent for the most part) or the fact Iggy Pop couldn’t smear meat on his body, attack the audience, or stage dive on record. The issue lay in how the band seemed to be just going through the motions when locked up in a room, as if they were so far out of their natural environment that they were too bored to care. Less than one year after that album came out, though, The Stooges would redeem themselves, and allow those who could not go to their shows to witness their might, in “Fun House”.
The line that would define Iggy’s persona (“I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm”) would only appear in the successor to “Fun House”, the impressive “Raw Power”, but it is here that such a character was fully forged and first shown to the major public. Iggy and the band sound like caged animals trying to break free, and it is not just because the vocalist emits animal growls and howls like a maniac in all of the album’s songs. The Stooges’ rage is palpable; the guitar riffs are so threatening they likely walk with a concealed pocket knife; and listeners who turn on their stereos in a volume that is worthy of the record will likely find themselves jumping around their living rooms punching the air while secretly hoping they will hit something, or at least they will wish doing so were socially acceptable. “Fun House” hits like a ton of bricks, and despite its dark contours, it is ridiculously alluring; one can easily picture Iggy Pop himself standing in front of a decrepit garage door with a worn out sign that reads “Fun House” while inviting passer-byes in with a wicked smile on his face.
Iggy Pop may be the Grand Master of the party, but the only reason he is able to come off as an impossible-to-tame combination of man and animal is because The Stooges are a train that threatens to come off the tracks at any second due to its uncanny momentum. Few riffs in the entire discography of rock music pack as much menacing energy as the one from “Down on the Street”. The double guitars of “Loose”; the circular pounding riff of “T.V. Eye”; and the mad eight-minute jazz-rock jam of the title track – which combines a thumping bass, cutting guitars, and a wild saxophone – are bound to make those who bear witness to their power lose all control of their senses; and the perfectly recorded drums, which appear to be in the same room as the listeners, are heartbeats that feel like powerful punches.
By being the album in which The Stooges are finally let loose, “Fun House” also contains incredible bits of improvisation, and although the group is not exactly technical, it is their impeccable primal instincts that take over in these occasions. Both “Dirt” and “Fun House”, which run past the seven-minute mark, are classic examples of shining gems that emerge because the guitars and the saxophone, in the case of the latter, are allowed to run free; however, even tunes that are more straightforward, such as “Down on the Street”, offer opportunities for improvised guitar licks and shouts that lend uniqueness and wildness to each riff repetition. The extreme culmination of all of that is “L.A. Blues”, the album’s closer, and an instrumental about chaos that sends its message by producing a cacophonous rock symphony. The Stooges wrap up their wild party by tearing down the garage, and the ending is suitable, for – after this one – no other celebration could live up to such greatness and be worthy of the location.