Like a Phoenix
It wasn’t so long ago that Gene Ween was wondering whether he’d ever write again. He’d dissolved Ween by executive decision, learning the hard way that he was living an unsustainable lifestyle and that his creative partnership that had lost its spark. After what can only be described as a very public meltdown, he went to rehab and embarked upon sobriety in a state of uncertainty. Luckily for us, the celestial muse struck once again and in just three or four weeks, Aaron Freeman arose from the ashes of his Gene Ween persona with a magnificent album.
This technically isn’t Freeman’s first solo album, but all the songs on Marvelous Clouds originally belonged to poet/songwriter Rod McKuen, so it didn’t really count as a proper introduction to Aaron without Ween. Freeman goes all the way there and it’s nothing short of impressive. The album starts in the most direct way possible, with Freeman acknowledging the elephant in the room that was his meltdown at the Vancouver show. This song, “Covert Discretion,” effectively clears the air before Freeman can properly get on with the rest of his album. It’s reminiscent of Elliott Smith both in style and in the confessional nature of the lyrics, chronicling the effects that substance abuse has on everyone involved, before brazenly ending with an explosive refrain, “Fuck you all, I got a reason to live and I’m never gonna die.”
Freeman is a grab-bag of styles within the soft-rock genre; there’s gritty rock on “Gimme One More,” eastern-inspired spirituals on “El Shaddai” and “Black Bush” and we even get Freeman’s own “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in the form of “(For Awhile) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man.” Across the board, lyrics are impressive in their honesty and wit. This is a personal album for Aaron, but it’s comforting to hear that he never plays it completely straight. “Black Bush” sounds a bit like a Donavan song, and Freeman charmingly implores a comically fake guru voice to deliver the line in Hindi. The refrain and title of “(For Awhile)” intentionally falls into a faux masculine trope before showcasing some blistering guitar work.
Ween diehards might air the same grievance with this offering that they did with Marvelous Clouds, that this too tame for Gene Ween. And it’s not that the complaint is imagined, it’s just futile. Yes, there’s no track on this album as eccentric as “Big Jilm,” but there are songs that are just as important. Aaron’s even admitted that one of his recent goals has been to get “lamer…in a very good way,” but this decision hasn’t impeded the quality of his creative output and it appears that this was no choice but a necessity. We should be happy that Freeman killed Gene Ween, because he was going to die anyway and it would have been a lot uglier if it had happened any other way.