Treble is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by posting a series of articles that reflect the last 10 years of music, including a series of Hall-of-Fame essays on significant albums released between 2003 and 2013. These are albums that left a significant impact not just on us, but also music on a greater scale (but mostly on us). We’ll be posting a new reflection on a significant album from the past 10 years every day for the next few weeks.
Quebec is a curious album from a band whose catalog is filled with very curious albums.
It’s a typical Ween record in that it has an overarching concept (or theme) that unites the songs, more or less, despite the amorphousness of the actual music. Where it is atypical is that its concept is not broad (e.g. The Mollusk, Pure Guava, 12 Golden Country Greats) or allusive (e.g. Chocolate and Cheese, White Pepper). Instead, it rather explicitly concerns two interrelated personal crises — substance addiction and the dissolution of a relationship. This, in itself, is by no means any more distinctive than the generic or allusive model they previously employed, perhaps even less so: countless “breakup albums” can be found throughout popular music history, a natural product of the particularly close sense of artist/audience confidence that is inherent in popular art. But Ween, as per usual, displays full awareness of this tradition, which is exemplified by any number of major albums — Blood on the Tracks, Sea Change, Shoot Out the Lights, Tallahassee, Cupid & Psyche ‘85, etc., and avoids repeating the same exercise again. To elaborate, the reason that you’re reading about quebec right now — as opposed to any of the fine records I just listed — is its bold re-imagination of the very tradition that it follows in; this re-imagination is a happy consequence of Ween’s aforementioned, near-pathological awareness, and further ranks among the most impressive innovations in their entire catalog.
At this point, it may seem absurd that I’m discussing Ween in these terms. That’s because, due to the often-humorous nature of Ween’s music, they’re not often taken seriously. To this, I can offer two responses: The first is to chalk it up to a simple failure of apprehension, rooted in an expectation that humor and seriousness are mutually exclusive in art; the second is to just discuss quebec, which — out of any album — is the one most perfectly constructed to shatter that illusion. Since I’ve essentially offered the first response already, I hope to now demonstrate in precise terms how quebec is a work of genius in its arena and, concomitantly, how it is subject of truly detrimental oversight in recent music history.
The “breakup album” concept has, over time, shown itself to be fairly restrictive. The standard form it takes is to position the singer as the sympathetic narrator/articulator, who conveys the story of the breakup, with all its emotional connotation and impact, to the ears of the listener. This form is standard for a reason: It creates intimacy and identification between the artist and the audience. This is why you often see it accompanied by a move toward generally reduced instrumental accompaniment (i.e. the acoustic song) — why bury the subject, the story, underneath non-representational sounds? This technique to enhance the intimacy of direct articulation also upholds the general coding in popular music of the naked voice as the index of “soul” or earnest expression. Out of the artists I listed above, only Scritti Politti truly subverts this convention in a conscious manner, though they ultimately adhere to most of the wider framework. Ween, however, subverts the entire framework via one essential, unique characteristic. While traditional examples of the breakup album position the vocalist as the aforementioned “end-all-be-all narrator” of the emotional crisis, Ween’s songs (not Gene Ween himself) embody (not just narrate) the crisis in quebec. The lyrics that Gene (and occasionally Dean) Ween delivers do not constitute a primary or even adequate manner of apprehending the crisis, as we will soon see; rather, the gestalt – and nothing less — of each particular song and, more completely, the album, is representative of the crisis. And with this, Ween take the “breakup album” concept to a new expressive height.
This process begins rather abruptly with “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night,” a track which would seem to betray my preliminary characterization, but which actually represents a perfectly appropriate beginning for the album. With its conventional structure and frenzied metal hammering, the track is a clear Motorhead parody, and as such is often dismissed on these terms without serious engagement. In fact, the parody aspect is only the most topical of characteristics that the song possesses, and the analytical laziness that it seems to provoke derails a true understanding of the record. Indeed, “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” uses Motorhead’s chaotic, emotionally charged style as its form, but the true function of the song is considerably more nuanced. As the track unfolds, Dean Ween’s dissonant guitar and seething shouts begin to paint a picture very different from the seemingly playful, party-glorifying subject matter: an out-of-control, violent binge. This is more or less encapsulated in the refrain, “You bring the razorblade, I’ll bring the speed…take off your coat, it’s gonna be a long night,” which explicitly links violence and harm (the razorblade) with the imbibed substance (speed), and later expresses faithlessness in all forms of possible assistance or rehabilitation (“your mother…your priest…your doctor”) — an expression which will be validated later in “Chocolate Town.” The question then is: if the album begins with its ostensible climax (the representation of a raging, drug-fueled bender), where does it go next? Well, take off your coat, Ween suggests, because the harrowing ride has just begun.
The following track — and consequence of the previous binge — is “Zoloft,” which, true to title, expresses a numbed, dissociated antidepressant fugue. Here, Ween adopts the vehicle of euphonious ballad but twists it grotesquely in accordance with the false, alienated calm engendered by the subject. With an eerily even cadence, Gene Ween attempts to extol his newfound “balance,” but ironically cannot muster any passion or emotion to render his words convincingly. The product is a bizarre mixture of gated drums, woozy synthesizer, distant and unnatural backing vocals (a facile perversion of one of the most common swelling, beautifying techniques in popular music production), and strung out, inane attempts to express emotional triumph: “Suckin ‘em down, I’m happy man / can feel it inside, makin’ me smile…I’m makin’ it through, I’m giving my all / when bases are loaded, I’m whacking the ball.”
For the discerning listener, a coherent connectedness between these songs is starting to appear, and only two tracks have elapsed. This connectedness becomes further clarified as the album progresses and the scope of its representation widens in the hallucinatory, arena-channeling (similar in this respect to “The Golden Eel” and “Buckingham Green”) follower “Transdermal Celebration,” a relatively conventional, wall-of-sound pop song that contains extremely unconventional subject matter. Following “Zoloft” as it does, the title “Transdermal Celebration” is likely a reference to the antidepressant Emsam, which is administered transdermally; though this may be the case, the preceding analysis of “Zoloft” does not apply here. In fact, “Transdermal Celebration” demonstrates an admittedly more convincing — though tantalizingly brief and still obviously false — sense of triumph (a product of increased sonic pomp and Gene’s more forceful elocution), and the song itself seems not to evince irony (as in “Zoloft”). Instead, this track functions to broaden the boundaries of the album’s scope, moving entirely from the narration of external events to the very muddled internal, presumably still drugged psyche of the narrator.
Aptly, the song also introduces psychedelic elements of style in conjunction with its shift in focus; these will remain present throughout the rest of quebec, which relies on them to an escalating degree as its psychological drama intensifies. Most significantly, however, the lyrics that Gene delivers with such deluded conviction consist of vague, fleeting, and incoherent visions that hint at mental breakdown: “Transdermal celebration, jets flew in formation / I could see them, dropping the crustaceans / Leaving trails of flames in their wake but where is the mutation who once told me it was safe? / I can’t find him.” These lines, despite their senselessness and the confused impetus that elevates Gene’s cadence in their delivery, betray a striking and overwhelming sense of somberness.
“Among His Tribe,” with a simple basis of soft, melodious singing and clean guitar strumming, initially seems to extend the kind of topical emotional respite of “Transdermal Celebration.” But it’s inflected by this somberness as well (truly, no song on quebec escapes this spectre). Its framework as a short, impressionistic, fantastical coming-of-age poem, coupled with the pleasantly gliding composition, at first generates a sense of escape from the personal crisis that the album has so far rendered in high relief. However, this is betrayed in a particularly subtle manner by the song’s descent into an ominous psychedelic interlude at the halfway point. This establishment of an escapist fantasy and the following subversion of it is a particularly unsettling technique, serving as a reminder for the listener that, despite the peaceful ebb of tension that “Transdermal Celebration” and “Among His Tribe” seem to offer, this ebb is only an illusion to disguise (and, paradoxically, reveal even more sharply) the darker, underlying reality of quebec. Ween recycle this technique of contrast throughout the album, at even more devastating points and to even more devastating effect. Here, however, it serves as an ingenious segue for the album’s return to explicit psychological dilemma in “So Many People In The Neighborhood.”
This abstract representation of suburban paranoia is the first minor masterpiece (as far as a short-form song can be a masterpiece) on quebec. Here, Ween return to the unconventional arrangement technique of “Zoloft” but go even further, forsaking conventional song structure entirely in favor of a near-ambient, psychedelic nightmare. With pitch-manipulated vocals that grow more and more violent as the song goes on, Gene and Dean chant over and over, “So many people in the neighborhood,” concluding “…and I don’t know if they’re very good people.” As they do, the composition heaves with truly jagged (cliché, I know) rhythms and twisted clownish jaunt, eventually swelling to a climax as the vocals disintegrate into unintelligible screams and cacophony. One cannot help but be reminded of mental instability here, as the threat of breakdown hinted at previously becomes concretized for the first time. In the face of suburban violation of intimacy — concerning the narrator’s as-of-yet only implied relationship — and the gossip-conducting nature of neighborhoods (which have a way of penetrating and disseminating the tender personal issues of their inhabitants), the narrator and the music that embodies the collapse of his mental state. Nowhere else in the recent history of popular music has the darker side (even though it is, without doubt, partly the creation of a troubled mind) of suburban community been captured so pointedly and deftly.
In this wake, quebec shifts to the exhausted but moving “Tried and True,” which revisits the psychedelic imagery of “Transdermal Celebration” with sharper clarity. Similar to “Among His Tribe” (and “Chocolate Town” later), “Tried and True” pantomimes the acoustic guitar/earnest singer format but, in contrast to them, seems to embody it as well. To be certain, earnest (i.e. non-ironic, direct) emotional expression is not standard in Ween’s modus operandi, but hopefully it is clear by now that quebec is not a typical Ween offering. Atypically indeed, Gene delivers lyrics that are intentionally poetic (a kind of prefiguring of Marvelous Clouds) with mellow guitar playing and an unobtrusive backing (drums and eventually a spare synthesizer part) behind him, vaguely describing the emotional core of a relationship: “As she came to me, I fell back down / realizing, oh, that it’s cool for you to love me now.” Though certainly not joyous by any means, these brief throes of calm reflection are the last effective respite for the listener before the album takes its final and decided dark turn.
“Happy Colored Marbles,” the next of quebec’s great songs, initiates this turn to the significantly more dramatic portrayal of emotional dissolution that the rest of the album portrays. Like the earlier “So Many People In the Neighborhood,” this track utilizes disturbingly pitch-altered vocals — specifically, a contrast between deep and monolithic echoing in the verses and a childish elevation in the chorus — along with a lurching, carnivalesque composition in a manner that could best be described as hellish. The interplay of these elements of horror and whimsy carry over to the haunting lyrics, which are now quite literally describing insanity but in alternately stark and indirect terms: “Most people are not okay…filling up on the poison nut”; “Happy colored marbles that are rolling in my head / I put them back in the jacket of the one I love.” The narrator’s trust of his sanity (hint: he uses the word “marbles”) to his significant other comes to its inevitable conclusion in a overwhelming wall of menacing sound — the sonic analog for mental break — that ends the track.