Pinkerton is, for the most part, an album composed of bitter, incendiary rockers (“Tired Of Sex,” “Getchoo,” “Why Bother”) and sad, contemplative slowburns (near everything else, including perennial b-sides like “Waiting On You” and “Devotion”). To that general rule, two of the album’s ten tracks are exceptions: the upbeat “El Scorcho,” which celebrates the dizzying excitement of a fresh crush with practically joyous self-deprecation — and “The Good Life.”
Rather than representing any of these facets, “The Good Life” is a catchy little distillation of Pinkerton on the whole: it’s got both the sharp bitterness and the introspective dejection, as well as the hip-shaking, slang-slinging rollick of the “El Scorcho” radical. The seamy, slovenly riff at its core seems like it can barely lift itself out of bed — sort of like Rivers Cuomo himself, who, in this part of the album’s narrative, finds himself longing for the sex-addled lifestyle he disavowed at the start of the album, though he’s been out of the game for so long he hardly feels comfortable in his own skin anymore.
Admittedly, for a first listen, the lyrics are pretty simple; “It’s time I got back, it’s time I got back / And I don’t even know how I got off the track” is the song’s most immediately memorable refrain. But there’s surprising depth here, including one of my favorite bits of Cuomo wordplay — “broken-beaten down” — and a considerable amount of personal detail. The line, “Without an old man cane, I fall and hit the ground,” is actually not just a metaphor, but also a reference to the support Cuomo sported at the time, then only in his early twenties. Because he had been born with one leg roughly two inches shorter than the other, he decided to undergo a correctional procedure shortly after the Blue Album tours, which involved the surgical breaking of his leg for the purpoise of extended regrowth (literally). The long recovery process was evidently quite painful — Cuomo compared it to “crucifying” his leg — and, coupled with the fact that he was an undergrad at Harvard at this time (one with braces, to boot), it’s easy to understand why Cuomo, in his mid-twenties, was feeling especially alien and hermetic. A cringe-inducing X-ray of Cuomo’s leg adorns the artwork for the “Good Life” single.
It’s great when he cuts loose on the chorus: “I don’t wanna be an old man anymore / It’s been a year or two since I was out on the floor / Shakin’ booty, making sweet love all the night / It’s time I got back to the good life.” Whereas the white-boy slang of “Buddy Holly” was clear self-parody, Pinkerton reveals that Cuomo had a genuine penchant for spicing up his vernacular. (See also the especially exclamatory start of the second verse: “Screw this crap, I’ve had it!”) There’s just something so conversational and honest about Weezer’s early lyric sheets, and Pinkerton is their high watermark.
Matt Sharp’s particularly mental sotto voce echo — I’ve had it! — adds even more color to the text, and highlights another of early Weezer’s greatest strengths: their vocal arrangements. Although there are few moments on this album that recall the Wilsonian harmonies of “Surf Wax America” or “Holiday,” Sharp’s interjected falsetto and Brian Bell’s consistent backing lead really help bring it all home on this record. And, unlike Blue, there are a lot of sing-speak Sharp moments like this one that lighten the mood (the greatest, of course, being How cool is that! on “El Scorcho”), a counterbalance for lines that might otherwise sound emotionally heavy-handed (“I should have no feeling / ‘Cause feeling is pain:” it’s not hard to tell why many blame Pinkerton for the young generation of emo bands that would invade FM dials and New Jersey in the early ’00s, despite innumerable stylistic differences). And then there’s one of my very favorite Weezer moments, wherein Cuomo delivers one of the album’s finest couplets — “Ain’t gonna hurt nobody, ain’t gonna cause a scene / Just need to admit that I want sugar in my tea” — and Bell provides the perfect parenthetical for its reiteration: “Hear me! (Hear me), I want sugar in my tea!” The neatest trick in these little moments is how they communicate the internal monologue of someone going stir-crazy, locked inside in their home and thoughts, the divergent qualities and registers of Bell and Sharp’s voices (both by nature and in the arrangement) sounding like different voices in Cuomo’s head – one of the more subtle examples of text painting (of a great many) in the Weezer discography.
Pat Wilson’s little drum fill at 1:32 has often been cited as his best ever (these folks are surely forgetting the climax of “Across the Sea,” or even that of “Getchoo”), and the instrumental breakdown that follows the scorching solo has to be one of the prettiest moments in rock’n’roll. Just after the band finishes getting dangerous, the tempo just sort of melts (as so perfectly articulated by Wilson’s graceful, tumbling tom roll), and all of a sudden, Cuomo’s doing this bleeding-heart slide guitar straight out of blue Hawaii, those pretty Pinkerton xylophone hits lighting up like reflected stars along the sea.
When the lead vocal reappears, it’s almost as though you can thread a clear narrative through the entire song: that lazy guitar at the beginning is Cuomo stumbling about his lonely house, slouched and unkempt, pondering where he went wrong; the dialectic of Cuomo’s lead and the backing vocal echoes represent the nigh-schizophrenic descent he’s made into self-imposed solitude; the frantic solo rock-out is the furious peak of Cuomo’s anxious ramble to himself, and the transition into that wonderful, starlit slide guitar is him growing tired from spinning his own wheels, drifting exhausted into a deep and peaceful sleep. Restored and ready, Cuomo now rouses himself from his dreams and despondency over a slow build of guitar — if the second one that comes alive at 3:09 doesn’t sound like an awakening, what does? — and now, Bell reenters in perfect accord with Cuomo, our protagonist’s inner voices now coming together to serve a sane, singular purpose.
“I wanna go back, yeahhhhh!” Wilson lighting into his cymbals, Sharp’s bass driving forward with melodic purpose, Cuomo and Bell swinging for the fences and straining for the fretboards…It all comes together just right, at the start of Side B (and after the end of Side A, “Across the Sea,” certainly Cuomo’s emotional and moral nadir), and you think to yourself that Cuomo might just get himself together sometime in the course of these last few songs. The plot thickens.
Regarding other versions, the remixed single version of this song is mostly unchaged; with a cursory listen, I can tell the drums (toms, specifically) have been raised in the mix, and the amp noise outro has been faded out to please the radio. Not that that did much to help, seeing how the only chart this song made, worldwide, was US Modern Rock, where it peaked at 32. The Australian “Good Life” EP came packaged with a live acoustic version from a lunchtime gig at some random high school (they won an MTV contest, see), which is a pretty great version despite Bell being thoroughly trashed and Cuomo forgetting the words for half a line. Sharp’s falsetto inflections and guttural asides are in top form (he even echoes the “I’m a pig, I’m a dog” line with a well-placed “woof woof!”), of course — perhaps because that was the only thing he was doing; no bass here (at the very least, Weezer lost in Sharp – and probably later Mikey Welsh – the acumen of somebody who knows acoustic bass sucks). And while the rock-out falters a bit without amps and pedals, the slide guitar section gets by with some pretty “ooh-ooh” falsettos in its stead. The high school kids sure seem to dig it, commercial bomb or not.
While that does it for the officially released versions, I have some more of the versions in circulation, including an acoustic radio performance for “99x FM” dated 1997 — featuring some twangy, cheapo electric guitar for good measure. There’s another acoustic good’un from the same year that the band did for Y100, and there’s also one from Tokyo, immediately pre-Green in April 2001, although you can sort of tell Cuomo’s already losing interest in this part of his discography. The song was last played in 2005 during the Make Believe tours.