Weezerology Part Two: The Butterfly Effect
Continuing my intermittent series of articles revisiting every one of Weezer’s songs throughout their career from 1992 to the present. Each album – or set of tracks – listened to and written about in order, no song covered more than once (in most cases), full-band releases or demos only (in most cases). Introduction and more info here, and part one – covering the years 1992-1995 – here.
4. Songs From The Black Hole Demos
1. Blast Off! 2. Who You Callin’ Bitch? 3. Oh Jonas. 4. Please Remember. 5. Come to My Pod. 6. Oh No This Is Not For Me. 7. Superfriend. 8. She’s Had A Girl. 9. Dude, We’re Finally Landing (Good News!) 10. What Is This I Find? 11. Now I Finally See. 12. You Won’t Get With Me Tonight. 13. Longtime Sunshine.
Recorded January 1994 – August 1995 by Cuomo/Bell/Sharp/Wilson.
In the aftermath of The Blue Album‘s enormous – and, as likely as not, unexpected – success, Rivers and Weezer actually tried two distinct approaches when it came to the task of dealing with Second Album Syndrome. They differed hugely on the surface, although – as we’ll see – they shared more in common than might initially appear.
The First Big Idea was Rivers’ plan to write a sprawling sci-fi-themed “rock opera” concept album. Named Songs From The Black Hole, the album would tell the story of five young space cadets on a mission to the stars – with each of the five characters (three male, two female) voiced either by members of Weezer or friends of the band. If that sounds batshit insane, it’s probably because it was – but it also might just have been something brilliant.
Rivers started work on Songs From The Black Hole in late 1994, and in the first half of 1995 recorded a batch of demos. Intending for the songs to run into one-another in order to tell the story, in all he recorded nearly twenty tracks – but as a number of them were deliberately shorter sections of under a minute, the total length of the demo album, clocking in at just under thirty-five minutes, works out at around half the likely length of the finished product.
Nevertheless, it’s possible to get a sense from these demos – which remained buried away from fandom for around a decade, but have more recently emerged first online, and then via Rivers’ Alone series of solo rarity compilations – how the album would have turned out from a song-writing point of view, if not stylistically (as, with the exception of songs that would later be re-used, Rivers’ raw demos are likely far away from the heavily-produced, multi-layered intent of the final product). Easily the most famous track – perhaps because it leaked first – is the intended opener, “Blast Off”:
While the final version would almost certainly have been drenched in keyboards, this recording does show how Rivers was already moving towards a heavier rock sound than on Blue. The style of riff employed is one that was fairly new to Weezer at the time, but can be seen showing up frequently at later points in their career – indeed, the otherwise-lamentable “Beverly Hills” doesn’t feel a million miles away from it.
Of course, this version – like all the other demos – suffers from the fact that Rivers is singing the parts of all the lead characters. This is also evident on the otherwise-magnificent “You Won’t Get With Me Tonight” – probably the most complete, individual pop song on the album as it exists – on which we therefore have to imagine a female singer like Rachel Haden playing one of the duetting roles:
Frenetic, ridiculously catchy and hugely enjoyable, “YWGWMT” (along with the long-time fan favourite track “Superfriend”) is among the strongest evidence for just how good SFTBH might have been. By the same token, none of these superficially straightforward pop songs really show off the more esoteric nature of the project. Aside from the shorter vignettes – which are highly variable in quality in their demo form – perhaps the song that does this the best is one of the few to feature the rest of the band on its recording. “Longtime Sunshine” exists in various demo versions – usually just recorded by Rivers – but the version released as a bonus track on the Pinkerton deluxe edition seems closest to the one that might have wound up being Black Hole‘s final track:
The closing sequence, in which various band members – each, we can presume, playing their “characters” – reprise a selection of different songs from earlier in the album, overlaid and harmonised, is somewhat raw in its execution here; but nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that the intended final result is something pretty exciting and unlike anything the band had tried before. We can reasonably expect that there would have been plenty more of that sort of thing dotted throughout the record.
This kind of musical experimentation might have made up for the fact that many of the album’s lyrics (at least, the ones that have made it out there) are, to be brutally honest, far from Rivers’ best work. They’re oddly adolescent (and at times, even borderline misogynistic), and the retro-futurist space theme gives way almost entirely to a somewhat lacklustre soap opera story about three guys and two girls alternately sleeping with, falling in love with, and rejecting one-another. One strangely recurring motif is the repeated reference to the size of one character’s genitalia, while a major plot element in the final act (in the song “What Is This I Find?”) is… an extra-large used condom. No, seriously.
Songs From The Black Hole was dead as a project by the time Rivers enrolled at Harvard university in Autumn 1995 – losing interest in the idea and shifting towards a different style of songwriting and recording. Its influence on the band wasn’t completely lost, however – as we’ll see, a number of tracks that started out as SFTBH cuts (and hence missing from the above tracklist) would appear later, and fan interest in the album burned throughout the late 2000s to the extent that a huge array of self-put-together takes on the album (some limiting themselves to the demo album alone, others working in album tracks and even songs by Matt Sharp’s side-project The Rentals) exist online.
Weezer, though, had other business to be getting on with. Like, for example, one of the greatest albums in alt-rock history…
1. Tired of Sex. 2. Getchoo. 3. No Other One. 4. Why Bother? 5. Across the Sea. 6. The Good Life. 7. El Scorcho. 8. Pink Triangle. 9. Falling For You. 10. Butterfly.
Recorded September 1995-June 1996 by Cuomo/Bell/Sharp/Wilson. Self-produced. Released September 1996.
If you chart Weezer’s progression from 1994 to 1996 with the inclusion of Songs From The Black Hole – which, of course, our retrospective position allows us to do – then it’s not entirely difficult to see where Pinkerton comes from. If you don’t have the benefit of that context, however, then it’s fair to say that hearing “Tired of Sex” as the first new track since the Blue Album is… well, it’s something of a shock. A shock that punches you square in the bollocks. If you have them.
Maybe this sudden, jarring shift in style explains why Pinkerton was so badly reviewed on release – and it was, to the extent that Rolling Stone included it in their “Worst Albums of 1996″ list. Except it doesn’t explain it, really, because surely only somebody without ears could call Pinkerton anything other than a masterpiece.
Perhaps, for some, the raw crunch of those first couple of tracks – the astonishingly good “Tired of Sex” with its never-again-matched-by-the-band guitar solo, and the admittedly slightly less astonishingly good “Getchoo” – were just too much of a hurdle to get over. Which is a shame, because get past them, and you’re left with an album that – as short, and tight, and raw as it is – shows Rivers at the absolute height of his songwriting powers. There’s depth and nuance to his lyrics that he’d rarely find again, wrapped up in melody that climbs free of the shackles of its deliberately underproduced form. “No Other One”, for example, is simply gorgeous:
The first four tracks all started life as Songs From The Black Hole demos – although “Tired of Sex” in particular is quite clearly the most personal track Rivers has written up to this point, a lament about his new rock-star lifestyle originally intended to be sung via the autobiographical mouthpiece character of Jonas on the concept album, but ultimately performed directly in the first-person. Indeed, despite dating from an earlier aborted project, all four of these tracks link quite well to the remainder of the album by virtue of being written in the highly personal style first experimented with on the likes of “Say It Ain’t So”. Nevertheless, there’s a clear break when the album wrenches into its second half, with a track even more unlike anything else heard from them before.
As the emotional peak of an album said to have inspired countless angsty-emotional-bands-with-guitars in the early 2000s, it could be said that “Across the Sea” has a lot to answer for. None of the subsequent context, however, should detract from the impact of the song. The lyric is downright bizarre – a Rivers wracked with self-loathing, responding with almost uncomfortable candour to a letter apparently written by a fan in Japan – but in the vocal he finds a vulnerability that draws the listener onside. Musically, the track hinges on one of the band’s most memorable choruses in the first half, before building to the kind of crescendo they’d already patented so well on the heavier moments of the first album.
“Across the Sea” is just the beginning, however, of a pretty remarkable sequence of tracks, which showcase the band at the unassailable height of their powers. “The Good Life” is simply furious, as Rivers kicks out at the world from the position in he’d spent much of late 1995: laid up, immobile, following surgery to adjust the length of one of his legs (no, really). Then there’s “El Scorcho”, the album’s one Proper Great Pop Single, which should have been as big as “Buddy Holly”, but whose performance upon release instead became a microcosm for the general indifference that greeted the album as a whole. Which is baffling, because… well, because this:
This is followed by the equally fantastic “Pink Triangle” – almost certainly the best song ever written about a man accidentally falling in love with a lesbian – and “Falling For You”, perhaps the most complex song musically that the band had recorded at that point. Indeed, the famous line “What could you possibly see in little old three-chord me?” is somewhat ironic given the sheer volume of chord progressions and key changes employed throughout.
And then… there’s “Butterfly”. Titled after the Puccini opera whose character also named the album, it closes the record in unexpected, deliberately anti-climactic fashion. The previous nine tracks might have suggested that an “Only in Dreams” mark 2 might round off proceedings – but instead there’s just Rivers and an acoustic guitar, and a raw, confessional lyric. While perhaps jarring the first time the album is heard, it feels like a necessary moment of reflection and breathing space, especially after the frenetic pair of tracks that precede it.
And so ends Pinkerton, a thirty-four-and-a-half minute explosion of contradictions, loosely themed around Puccini’s opera but more openly concerned with themes of longing, desire and frustration. It marked out the band as unquestionably brilliant talents; and yet, perhaps because it’s not a friendly album the way the first was, it was greeted with disregard at best, and outright hostility at worst, upon its release. That consensus had seen a dramatic reappraisal by the time the band re-emerged in 20011 – the year the record was finally certified Gold – but listening to it again now, it’s hard to see how it was ever anything other than an instant classic.
6. Pinkerton B-Sides/Miscellany
1. You Gave Your Love To Me Softly. 2. Devotion. 3. Waiting on You. 4. I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams. 5. Getting Up and Leaving. 6. I Swear It’s True. 7. Tragic Girl.
1-4 recorded September 1995-June 1996 by Cuomo/Bell/Sharp/Wilson. 5-7 recorded Spring 1997 by Cuomo/Bell/Wilson/Orth/Riebling.
The b-sides on the Pinkerton singles – chart flops, every single one – are an interesting bunch. They actually share a number of characteristics in terms of the style and sound – so much so that in a way, they feel like a Pinkerton that could have been, if the band had continued to write “cleaner” pop songs while still shifting into the slightly edgier sound they’d developed.
One of the tracks, “I Just Threw Out The Love Of My Dreams”, actually was from the album that could have been – intended originally as a Songs From The Black Hole piece, in the version that was recorded for the Good Life EP it probably offers the closest representation of how that album might have sounded, thanks to the addition of heavy keyboard backing and guest vocals from Rachel Haden.2
“Waiting On You” and “Devotion” are both pretty solid romantic laments from Rivers – I personally much prefer the former, but I know the latter has its fans – but there’s also a lovely, short, punchy slice of pop-rock called “You Gave Your Love To Me Softly”. The song was originally recorded for another film soundtrack – in this case the 1995 teen comedy-drama Angus – after an earlier song, “Wanda” was rejected.3 But in a reversal of what happened with “Susanne” a year or so before, the generally-preferred version (by fans and the band) was actually the one recorded among the Pinkerton sessions and released as a b-side – slightly slower-paced, but with an altogether beefier feel.
In 2010, the Pinkerton Deluxe Edition reissue saw the release of two tracks that had originally been intended to feature as B-sides on a single release of “Pink Triangle”, which was ultimately shelved following the poor chart performances of “El Scorcho” and “The Good Life” (not to mention the album itself).4 The two songs have a shared heritage, both also originally having been under consideration as Blue Album cuts. While still incomplete, the Pinkerton era demos show them in a closer-to-final form. “Getting Up And Leaving” is the stronger, in my view, with a catchier hook than the slightly plodding “I Swear It’s True”; but neither especially stand out ahead of the album tracks on either of the first two albums.
Far more of a pleasant surprise was the final track on Pinkerton Deluxe, “Tragic Girl”. Given how meticulous the writing and recording logs of Weezer’s song history were, it was astonishing that this track, recorded very late in the Pinkerton sessions,5 was basically forgotten about by just about everybody until it was dug up for the re-release. It’s magnificent. While its original purpose isn’t a matter of record, lyrically at least it fits very clearly in with Pinkerton‘s themes, and stylistically it does actually feel like a pretty strong capstone for the album – it would slot neatly in after “Falling For You”. It’s my guess, therefore, that it was originally considered as the album closer, but later replaced by Rivers with “Butterfly”.
Either way, though, what it does serve pretty neatly as now is the “final word” on the Pinkerton era of Weezer – the last discovered recording, the last track on what will presumably be the definitive re-release of the album, and what’s more, perhaps the most holistic single-track representation of that style. And in a way, it’s quite nice to have a track that gives a sense of closure to that whole phase – because, as we’ll see next time, following Pinkerton‘s failure and the band’s near-dissolution, it would be a very different Weezer that would later emerge, to a very different audience…
Weezerology continues with Part Three, Bein’ Green.
1 Despite the aforementioned inclusion in their “worst of the year” list, in their actual review itself, Rolling Stone had given the album a passable 3/5. A further review in 2004, however, saw them grant it 5/5. Pitchfork, meanwhile, had originally rated the album 7.5, but their review of the 2010 re-release was a perfect 10.0.
2 Haden was, along with her sister Petra, a member of LA-based group that dog., who put out one terrific album (1997′s Retreat From The Sun) and two pretty decent ones in the mid to late ’90s. She and Petra were also part of the lineup of Matt Sharp’s offshoot band The Rentals in its first incarnation. Rachel was slated to play the character of “Laurel” (aka “Lisa”) in SFTBH, while Joan Wasser of a band called The Dambuilders was to play “Maria”.