In very brief summary, Pinkerton was an album of unmitigated genius that the world simply didn’t want to hear in 1996. It was all at once too personal, ugly and complex for a market that then wanted little more than simple melodies and big arena refrains from their rock songs (all thanks be to the Gallagher brothers). Rivers Cuomo has said that much himself: prior to the release of the album, he thought he had hit upon a new sound that would be a breath of fresh air for audiences still living in the nuclear winter of grunge’s 1994 fallout. But as he later noted on the Rivers Correspondence Board in early 2001, he realized that he had fallen out of step with the times soon after the record’s release. That realization hit him the first time they tried to play “Across the Sea” at a festival.
It’s pretty clear now, though, that “Across the Sea” is one of the very best songs on one of the very best records of the ’90s — quite possibly the finest song Cuomo has ever penned. After an expositional bit of fragile piano and dusty, recorder, an electric guitar chord hits with conviction, leading us into the verse.
At once, the band is in top form, Matt Sharp’s bass rumbling and tumbling like someone dragging himself out of bed, a scrappy but tight beat courtesy Pat Wilson, and Cuomo’s winding vocal melody reciting almost verbatim a piece of fanmail that an 18-year-old girl from Japan sent him in the wake of Tthe Blue Album‘s success, poor grammar intact. As we are soon to find out, this letter resonated with Cuomo as he first read it, probably alone and miserable for his first semester at Harvard, his recently-operated leg in a brace and a cane propped by his dorm room door. Rumors abound that she receives royalties to this day.
The word “epic” was thrown around a lot to hype up this year’s The Red Album, but really, this is about as epic as Weezer gets: a towering chorus, verse vocals filled with ambivalent countermelody, and one of the greatest breakdown-buildup-payoffs in rock history. The very structure of the song seems to reflect Cuomo’s ambivalence: on the chorus he abstains, singing, “I could never touch you / I think it would be wrong”; elsewhere, he fantasizes about everything from the girl’s taste in interior design to the way she masturbates, and briefly considers moving to Japan “just to find the juice” (talk about confessional). Finally, faux-triumphantly, as the song reaches its compositional climax, he returns to the emotional void at the heart of his problems: “How I need a hand in mine to feel.”
It’s a cathartic moment and, interestingly, we, The Listener, find ourselves strangely able to relate. Surely none of us have ever had the experience of being lonely and depressed enough to momentarily consider flying half a world to meet an 18-year-old fan of our rock band, but somehow the emotion of the song communicates itself with such honesty that we can adapt it for our own purposes. That climactic moment, wherein Cuomo accepts the hopelessness of “words and dreams” and promises that can’t possibly be fulfilled, could just as easily be applied to the common pains of any long distance relationship, or an imaginary match we’ve yet to meet. “Why are you so far away from me?” Perhaps, for the listener, the sea is metaphorical; perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s not even a person at all, but simply the waiting for something we don’t want to know will never come.
Perhaps it’s when Cuomo, in a dark moment of clarity in the bridge, takes a moment to psychoanalyze himself and decides to blame all his romantic failings on the way his mother brought him up. But these are little details that don’t really matter: what matters in the end is that somehow, there’s something in this intensely personal, intensely specific song that is so undeniably human, that it can become yours, no matter who you are, if you care to crack its shell. It’s a bit of a struggle, and apparently one few fans of The Blue Album wanted to attempt in 1996, but, like the record it represents, “Across the Sea” is one of the greatest investments an angsty young listener can make — and that is why it has endured.
Funnily, since the ’90s, Rivers has more or less resigned himself to a career of musical mediocrity, pandering to the lowest common denominator, trying to find a song topic as broad and generalized enough as to appeal to the entire world. But it doesn’t matter how many times a man in middle-age attempts to take advantage of well-worn cliches. He can flip the bird to authority (“Troublemaker”), rap the desire for celebrity (“Beverly Hills”) or write as many faceless, formulaic love songs as he wants, but the great irony of Weezer is that they will never again be as relatable as they were on Pinkerton — the most unique, sincere, and individual work of their lives.