Ween’s quebec was a curious album from a curious band

Ween Quebec hall of fame

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.

Ween quebec hall of fame

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 Motörhead 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.

With another concretized representation of the mental breakdown that underlies and ties together quebec completed, Ween moves to the dark and acidic irony of “Hey There Fancypants.” At first, this flippant, jangly jaunt signals to the listener another instance of the ebb in tension that was used so prominently throughout the first half of the record. However, when apprehended properly, “Hey There Fancypants” evinces a similar degree of mental health to its predecessor. Rather than address breakdown directly again, the narrator offers a bitter, self-reflexive portrait of destitution: “Hey Mr. Fancypants, play the songs that make us dance…a song for all the lonely hearts / shattered dreams and broken parts / feels like sunny days are coming soon…tonight’s the night when all your dreams come true…drinking down your dinner all alone.” As on the first two tracks, a kind of narrative cause-and-effect is apparent here in the situation of loneliness that is described and contrasted with both the presence of a significant other in “Happy Colored Marbles” and the repeated reference to couples throughout the rest of the unquoted lyrics. The alcoholic isolation described here is wrenching, yet the sympathetic pain it elicits from the listener is minor in comparison to that engendered by the raw humanization (coupled with the maintenance of bleak tone and circumstance) that follows.

This humanization begins in the oneiric and despairing “Captain,” which in a looping and largely static composition, condenses the entire undercurrent of somberness in quebec. This is perhaps the simplest and most crushing of any Ween song, and one of the more moving portrayals of addiction in the decade. Using repetition once again — in the singular, continuing exhortation “Captain, turn around and take me home” — Gene manages to encapsulate in allegory the experience of lost control in depression, mental illness, and drug addiction. It is, in fact, an extraordinary testament to Ween’s musicianship that they are able to render this situation in such an emotionally accessible product despite limiting their formal coloration so severely, essentially to the single line and Gene’s pained, desperate delivery.

“Chocolate Town,” too, demonstrates Gene’s expressive vocal mastery, but in the context of a truly beautiful pop song. Simultaneously one of the more transparent and misdirecting offerings on quebec, its sonic euphony and rather silly way of phrasing the subject (one of few strained attempts at cheeky humor in the record) invite the listener to appreciate “Chocolate Town” as a “happy song,” but actually represent a high — the “sunny bunny feeling” — that the narrator is experiencing. However, there is no misdirection in the actual story, which (as is often pointed out) describes the narrator making a desperate trip to the ghetto to acquire drugs. One can observe the relation between this scenario and “Captain” in the guilt-ridden words of the narrator, “tired of the life I was facin’ / I couldn’t hide a secret from my mother / Any other mother wouldn’t bother,” whose depression pulls him ineluctably towards self-destruction, despite some kind of familial support.

Ween Quebec hall of fame

The confessional tone in “Chocolate Town” segues smoothly into the narrative, confessional ballad “I Don’t Want It,” which describes the interpersonal relationship of concern in quebec in significantly more direct terms. This, I believe, is apt at this moment in the album, following the preceding sequence of admittedly devious tracks that portray the crisis in a unique and indirect manner. Here, Ween retreats to convention (one of only a few times on quebec) just when it is needed to further enhance the sympathetic character of the narrator. In other words, only now, after having experienced so much abstraction, is the listener adequately receptive to this background and unmasked monologue. This is not the final time that Ween does this on quebec.

After the brief interlude “The Fucked Jam,” one of Ween’s few responses to hip-hop music, quebec resumes with the entirely abstract “Alcan Road.” Again, Gene’s growing predilection towards poeticism surfaces in lush, imagistic, and nonsensical lyrics: “Mountain man, frosted child / eagles cry, puppets of god / strung like time, molded in form / trees bend back, and trails distort.” There is a similarity to some of the more psychedelic moments on The Mollusk (“Mutilated Lips,” “The Mollusk”) here, though the fey ponderousness with which they are articulated now is largely unprecedented in Ween’s catalog. The following track, “The Argus,” largely retains this tone and psychedelic poeticism, only becoming slightly more focused and representational in its use of “the Argus” as its central figure. This is undoubtedly the most interesting and complex song on quebec from a lyrical standpoint, demonstrating concerns with perception and knowledge in consistently paradoxical formulations: “Yesterday we lost our lives / tomorrow we were born…letting droplets of light erupt from the sea…lying in beds of garlic and orchids / he closes an eye, which closes another / and in sleep he dreams of watching and looking / and feather clouds dancing he curls up his lid and sleeps.”

The fantastical psychedelia of these two tracks comes crashing back down to earth in particularly catastrophic fashion on the album closer “If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All).” This bleak title does not belie the content of the song which, in direct address to the now ex-significant other, expresses complete and utter despair: “The wheels fell off, the bottom dropped out  / The checks all bounced, I came in your mouth…The trash caught fire when the leaves turned brown / The vultures were circling when the circus left town…If you could save yourself, you’d save us all…The time I’ve spent working myself to death / Thought that’s what you wanted / I thought you needed my help…I was on my knees, when you knocked me down.” Here, again, Ween adopts the massive rock ballad form that they know so well, and, again, it behooves their purpose. The deftness with which Ween is thus able to channel sheer woe here — in Gene’s soaring yet defeated cadence and the extreme dynamism of the song’s transition points — allows the listener tortuous tangibility of this deeply personal, pained subject matter. Ween has always displayed a tendency to craft elevated, affecting closers on their albums (“She Wanted to Leave,” “Fluffy,” “She’s Your Baby”), but in this case they transcend even that precedent, closing quebec’s story of suffering with a fittingly agonizing end before cutting off abruptly and leaving the listener with silence.

What Ween communicates here does not represent the entirety of human experience. The existence of hope and happiness in the world isn’t in question, and Ween has almost always championed these things with aplomb in their vibrant, joyous, and regenerative humor. But Ween expresses something very different and just as true here, in this strange, sad record that begins and ends so definitively. The tribulations contained within are an evocative portrayal of the very inevitable crises of life, which do sometimes overwhelm even the power of laughter. And, in the way that quebec begins and ends more abruptly than you’d expect — well, that too reminds me of life.

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