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Everything Zen

March 9, 2016

Alternative rock band Weezer’s second album, Pinkerton, was released in 1996 to little fanfare. Panned by critics and lackluster sales, the sophomore entry was a far cry from the band’s multi-platinum debut, the self-titled Weezer with the hit single “Buddy Holly.”

Retrospectively, however, the album has become a cult classic and is regarded as one of the most significant albums of the 1990s. Exemplifying this polarity is the fact that Rolling Stone readers voted Pinkerton as the third worst album of the year in 1996, yet six years later in 2002 voted it the 16th greatest album of all time.

A modified image of a print from Ando Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a copy of which is in the DMA’s collection, was chosen for Pinkerton’s album cover. Kambara: Snow at Night depicts a snowy evening in Kambara village—an unlikely scenario, since Kambara was located in a temperate area.

Hiroshige’s romantic enhancement of reality for emotional effect makes the woodblock print a fine choice for Pinkerton, since it is such an expressive album. Angst-filled, youthful poets so often tend to exaggerate events for greater dramatic impact. Interestingly, examination of the resulting production style and various thematic elements in Pinkerton inextricably link it to Zen Buddhism and other aspects of Japanese culture.

Pinkerton features a very raw and abrasive sound in an effort to evoke a live performance. The recordings for Pinkerton were done in one take, meaning everything was recorded simultaneously with little to no overdubbing after the fact. For example, lead singer and principal composer Rivers Cuomo recorded the vocal tracks with his fellow band members in unison around three microphones close to one another. This recording method contrasts with the way vocals are usually recorded, in an isolated chamber after the instrumental tracks have been laid down. Instead, the band member’s vocal tracks bleed into one another much like the guitar, drum, and keyboard work do. Little if any editing was done to their singing or the instruments. The resulting quality of the album sounds extremely rugged and unrefined, which contributes to its liveliness and emotional intensity.

Rivers Cuomo spent his early years in upstate New York living at a Buddhist Zen Center. Eventually he would move to Yogaville, an enclave of the spiritual practice in Virginia, where he remained for the rest of his childhood. These experiences no doubt contributed to the direction of production for Pinkerton. The desire to create the audio effect of an energetic, live performance is reflective of the fluid, in-the-moment perspective treasured in Zen Buddhism for the creation of art.

Moreover, Zen artistic values that permeate into the culture of Japan to this day treasure simplicity and the rough. Indeed, Zen art seeks to inspire contemplation of human existence as something that is ephemeral, lonely and melancholic through its emphasis on imperfection.

In this way a crooked, shabby cup is perceived as more attractive than an immaculate, symmetrical, and fastidiously constructed bowl made of fine material. This perspective results from the fact that the malformed cup encourages reflection on the nature of reality instead of merely being aesthetically pleasant to look at, like the “perfect” bowl.

Due to Pinkerton’s initial poor sales and critical reception, Weezer nearly disbanded, going on hiatus for 5 years until 2001’s Weezer (Green Album). With this new release onward, the band has not recorded in the atypical fashion they had on Pinkerton, instead choosing production enhancements that resulted in greater polish and clearness. The Zen artistic values of spontaneous creation and greater emotional depth achieved through imperfection serve to illuminate the artistic brilliance and relevance the band was able to achieve at that moment.

Artworks shown:

  •  Ando Hiroshige, Kambara: Snow at Night, 1834, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus.
  • Deep Bowl for Tea Ceremony (Mukozuke), Japan, A.D. 1568-1615, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Haynes.

Devon Hersch
McDermott Intern for Asian Art

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