Addiction can be a real demon, especially when you’re famous. I have a friend who was obsessed with Mitch Hedberg, a great comedian who probably knew this all too well. Drug use wasn’t just a part of Hedberg’s life, it was basically his persona; he looked stoned all the time, but that was really his act. His jokes nearly all centered around the sort of things that people typically never thought about (such as the implication of “Three easy payments!” or the fact that you can get free bread at Subway if you say it’s for a duck); they were funny because they were stupid and disconnected from reality, but they were also brilliant in the way they turned so many simple concepts on their head. He’s the sort of comedian who would seem to be really easy to imitate but he really wasn’t; look at any number of Twitter accounts for proof. My friend got a chance to see him in early 2005, and I remember him just being crushed. Apparently Mitch was completely fucked up, stumbling around, messing up all his jokes (and not in the fleet-footed way he usually does), and some times seeming to forget that he was on the stage at all. I was sad, but not surprised when Mitch died a couple of months later. Drug addiction catches up to you like that. You’re in control until you’re not. You’re responsible and then you’re not.
I thought about this when I heard of Ween’s infamous Vancouver show in 2011, in which Gene Ween apparently was audibly and visibly wasted; not buzzed or high the way he (and the rest of the band) usually were, but just straight up trashed, unable to keep time or hit his notes, baffled by his sudden inability to tune his guitar, and constantly forgetting the words to his own songs. That’s one thing when you’re playing in bars or small venues for $10 a ticket (see: last week’s review) but Ween were a pretty big draw by this point and had a well-earned reputation as a terrific live band.
For all the blame heaped on Gener for what happened that night, that’s the life that Ween lived. Aaron Freeman had lived 41 years to that point and he had been Gene Ween for 27 of them. Maybe the other guys could keep it cool but everyone handles addiction differently, and for Aaron there were some tough choices to be made. The problem for Ween (and for Hedberg) is that the drugs and alcohol tied in so closely to their identity. You don’t have to look hard to find stories of people getting fucked up with Ween, partying with them after the shows, or straight up throwing substances onstage. Hence why it’s so hard to kick the habit if you’re in the entertainment business. How do you get clean when you’ve built your career on staying dirty? You can imagine Mitch Hedberg thinking to himself, “will I still be creative?” Mike Doughty asking himself “will I still be able to write songs?” (I’ve ragged on The Book of Drugs before, but the section where Doughty talks about his anxiety over being able to write songs while sober is quite interesting). For Ween – “Are we gonna suck?” “Will our fans still like us?”
Of course, for Aaron Freeman it really wasn’t a choice to get sober, it was a necessity. He turned 40, had been in and out of rehab several times before, and was gaining and losing weight at an unhealthy rate. Once he realized that he’d never kick his habits with Ween still around he decided to break up the band altogether, a move that disappointed many (none more than the other members of Ween) but ultimately was a life or death decision. Besides, they hadn’t put out a record in four years anyway, and the one they did (2007’s La Cucaracha, which itself came after a four year wait) was kind of a disappointment, as it was first Ween record that didn’t really try to do anything new.
While it’s not a new Ween record, FREEMAN is about as close as you’re going to get right now. Aaron’s first solo album was a collection of Rod McKuen covers, which is a pretty freakin’ left-field thing to do, as though he just wanted to release something to prove he could do it on his own. His next release was the digital-only Gener’s Gone which contained demos of six songs that might have made a future Ween album; interesting but a little bittersweet. So FREEMAN is the album we’ve been waiting for, a collection of all new tunes by the man who used to be Gene Ween.
That said, if you compare the songs here with the ones on Gener’s Gone, you can tell that he’s not writing them in the same way. Ween wrote a number of straight-faced, downright emotional songs, but at the end of the day there was always the search for brownness, that certain fucked up “I can’t believe they’re doing this” feeling that painted Ween as the sort of band that would try anything, at least once. The great thing about Gene and Dean is that together they seemed boundless; Dean could emulate just about any style on guitar and Gene had about a dozen voices he could cycle through, not even counting all the goofball vocal manipulation stuff they did in the early days. Gene had this almost subconscious tendency to needlessly Eddie Vedder-up his voice sometimes, hitting odd notes and drawing out random syllables; if nothing else it’s funny, and who sings like that anyway? But on FREEMAN, he’s all business – he does lapse into different voices at times (“Black Bush”), for the first time he’s not trying to make anyone laugh. Nothing’s funny and nothing’s meant to be ironic; not to say Ween were about the irony either, but they certainly left the door open.
In other words, FREEMAN sounds like the direction everyone was afraid Ween was going to go in after White Pepper, which really isn’t such a bad thing, as in retrospect that album’s held up quite well. But it’s rather tame, the sort of music befitting of a 44-year old man with gray hair and two kids. For once everything is done in service of the song; early Ween would’ve taken a bluesy growler like “Gimme One More” and completely deadened it, while later Ween probably would put a peppy beat under it and just jam the thing out.
More than the songs, the album is about redemption. The first song, “Covert Discretion”, is the only one that really tackles it head-on, but the theme is everywhere if you look for it. From the references to spirituality to songs like “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man” to even the name of the band, stylised as “FREE MAN” on the cover. He’s not really pulling any punches either – the lyrics to “Covert Discretion” are pretty gnarly, and I don’t want to quote any lines here because the whole thing is worth reading (suffice to say, it does address the herd of elephants in the room).
That said, “Covert Discretion” is one of the lesser songs on the album, as there’s really not much to it. Like Ween most of the songs here are rather simple and get to the point rather quickly, but can really shine when the arrangements are good. My two favorite songs on the disc are the strangest and most lushly arranged ones – “El Shaddai” and “Golden Monkey”, both of which could’ve been highlights on later-day Ween albums. When you think of what FREEMAN could be as a band, you probably think of the most gorgeous and layered tunes in the Ween catalogue – stuff like “The Argus”, “Back to Basom”, and “Stay Forever”. Listening to the album there’s definitely that potential; sometimes it really does hit the spot, other times it seems to pull back a little much. Freeman obviously had a vision of what this album was supposed to sound like; laid back, professional, and mature, almost to a fault. You wait for the big rock song, the anthem, the “Transdermal Celebration”, but it doesn’t come. As a whole, all the songs seem like they could be sped up a good 10%.
Still, it’s hard to fault the guy. If you discount the final track (“I Know a Girl”, which sounds like it was recorded on a wax cylinder), there’s 11 songs here, and nearly all of ’em are good. There’s probably something to be said for not putting so much downtempo balladry all in a row like this but that’s obviously the sort of album that Freeman is trying to make here. A few more Beatles-esque pop tunes similar to “The English and Western Stallion” might’ve helped, but then again the slow stuff really does work – “Delicate Green” is one of the most gorgeous songs Aaron’s ever penned. Like the best Ween material, it’s less about genre and more about just getting in the zone.
Given how bad things had gotten for him just a couple years ago, FREEMAN is some kind of triumph – not only was the man able to get out of a bad situation and start writing some damn songs again, he was able to do it on his own terms. It’s unfortunate that this album is destined for obscurity when Ween remains a big name, as it’s really quite good – it should appeal to anyone who dug White Pepper at the very least. And if the almighty Boognish decides to rise again, we know that Aaron will be ready.