Ween broke up within a couple hours of my interview with Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, in the summer of 2012. There was no mention of the impending breakup; instead, the conversation focused on his solo album Marvelous Clouds, a collection of Rod McKuen songs that Freeman and producer/friend Ben Vaughn hammered out over three one-week sessions. With the release of his first official solo album, many asked questions like, “Why cover Rod McKuen?” and “Who the hell is Rod McKuen?” The gentle rock and soft-focused recordings were a bit removed from what the typical Ween fan would either want or expect, and as such, part of the audience at Freeman’s performances listened with disgruntled looks across their brows, arms crossed, and smartass comments ready to fill the air between songs. This derision was even something Freeman said he related to, feeling a sense of parallelism with McKuen, who was often derided by critics.
Similar to Ween, or even to Freeman’s solo effort, McKuen is something of an acquired taste. He eventually found respect and an admirer in Vaughn, who would bring McKuen’s work to Freeman’s attention. Because Freeman had never really listened to McKuen’s work, he was able to approach the set of covers with a fresh perspective, interpreting them in his own way and even going as far as to simplify some of the chord progressions. The result was a breezy album vaguely reminiscent of AM radio and ’70s soft rock, something sweetly summed by fans as simultaneously nostalgic and fresh.
That same sentiment can be applied to Freeman’s latest solo effort, Freeman. This time, rather than rely on somebody else’s compositions, Freeman has delivered a set of original material, much of which is autobiographical, though the vibe of Marvelous Clouds is very much present. In fact, it would seem as though Freeman were gunning for Yacht Rock Album of the Year. It was only after a few subsequent listens that the songs begin to unfold and, at times, reveal something along the lines of a Ween song.
(Interview: Aaron Freeman: Life After Gene Ween)
The song getting everybody’s attention is album opener “Covert Discretion”. Essentially lost and forgotten until Freeman rediscovered it while preparing Freeman, the song was written about a week after his much-discussed onstage meltdown in Vancouver in 2010 (something he described as “one of the low points in my life”). A quiet shocker of a number, “Covert Discretion” tackles the performer’s problems head-on — problems with substance abuse as well as with fans and fellow musicians. Freeman lures you in with guitar and spring day sensations, allowing you to feel the legitimate connection between this album and his previous one. Then he hits you with the choral refrain that would wake anyone out of complacency: “Fuck you all/ I’ve got a reason to live/ And I’m never going to die,” he goes, which captures Freeman at his most direct and sincere. So does his plea “Save your judgments for someone else/ Be grateful I saved me from myself.” As to why such a potentially abrasive track would open the album, Freeman said, “It’s obviously gotta be first because it’s like your last thing, your final dramatic statement, and then you get to move on to the rest of it.” Translation: Why hide from who I am and pretend nothing was wrong? Let’s put it on the table, clear the air, and move on with our lives.
That said, the rest of Freeman is not a vacation from Freeman’s world. The entire album oozes self-reflection, personal revelations, and some good old-fashioned truth-seeking. If fans thought that Freeman was ignoring the elephant in his room by releasing Marvelous Clouds, this album is the man not only acknowledging said elephant, but also taking it on a tour of the neighborhood for everyone to see. In spite of such open self-acknowledgement, the record isn’t mired in the swamps of despair and inner turmoil.
The songs that fill the LP are gorgeous, subtly offbeat numbers, blending a signature humor with a surreal approach to pop. The lush, psychedelic single “The English and Western Stallion”, the bluesy Plastic Ono Band rock of “Gimme One More”, and the more spiritually influential “El Shaddai” and “All the Way to China” (inspired by Kabbalah and James Michener’s The Source, respectively) keep both the songwriter and listener from being pulled underwater, anchoring Freeman in a less substance-dependent world and freeing him up to do his own thing. This is proven brilliantly on the mind-warping “Golden Monkey”, a track reminiscent of the sound of Ween’s underrated Quebec.
All these pieces arc back to much of Ween’s catalog, acting as a perfect and obvious continuation. That connection is legitimate and intentional. Freeman himself has said that while this album could not have been made without breaking up Ween, who were at a “creative dead end way before … La Cucaracha,” he makes a point to stress that he wants “this record to pay homage to Ween.” Listen to “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man”, and within a few lines, you can easily imagine Ween performing the song. Sure, it may have been arranged differently, but the connection is undeniable. When Freeman says, “These are the same songs I would’ve written in Ween — except without Mickey [Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween],” you can believe him.
Essential Tracks: “Covert Discretion”, “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man”