The Death of Gene Ween: Aaron Freeman’s Successful Second Act

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote about there being no second acts in American lives has become one of the great truisms of our entertainment industry. It’s even harder to go on to something new when you’ve been in the same band for 30 years, and when the image that band projects to the world is set in stone — in this case, that image is a man with a nitrous oxide bong strapped to his face, staring at you from the front of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. Ween were the great eccentrics of the rock ‘n’ roll world for the best part of three decades, and it’s doubtless difficult for Aaron Freeman — he who was until a couple of years ago known as Gene Ween — to step out from the pod and stand alone. But Freeman’s new album under the moniker of, um, Freeman (out now) finds him doing exactly that, and succeeding.

Ween were always more interesting than the cartoonish image they were often saddled with (one that, in fairness, they did a great deal to cultivate for themselves). For every “Push the Little Daisies” or “Voodoo Lady” there was a genuinely emotive and raw lyric like “If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All).” Indeed, it was the contrast between the two poles of their sound that made Ween anything more than a novelty band — if they’d only ever released stuff like “Piss Up a Rope,” their appeal would have been lucky to endure for three months, let alone three decades. (But yes, “Piss Up a Rope” was hilarious, and remains so.)

Although he released a solo debut, Marvelous Clouds, in 2012, Freeman seems to have recently taken very deliberate measures to cut ties with Gene Ween for this new phase of his career. Last year he released an EP of what he called Gene Wene’s final recordings, which included a genuinely touching farewell to his alter ego — it was called “Gener’s Gone.” As someone who’s never been a huge Ween fan, I was surprised to find myself welling up a little as Freeman sang, “Gener’s gone/ Let’s hold a candle up for Gener/ He loved you all just like his children/ And it broke my heart to say goodbye.”

The accompanying blurb gave a hint as to the reasons why Freeman was putting Gene Ween out to pasture:

After 20+ years of near-fatal drug and alcohol abuse (thankfully culminating with intensive but successful rehab), Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) was left in a dire financial situation. All proceeds [from the sales of the EP] will go directly to Aaron, as he continues down the path toward creative freedom and personal health.

With this in mind, you can understand why Freeman might want to head in a new direction. It seems strange to speak of a 44-year-old man growing up, but there’s an air of that to Freeman. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s the sound of a man standing alone — without his creative partner of 30 years, and without the costume he wore to protect himself from the world.

There’s perhaps some significance, too, to the fact that he’s now dropped the “Aaron” from his stage name and goes simply by “Freeman.” Here he is, a free man, singing his own songs. There are certainly eccentric moments: the faux-Spanish accent he affects on “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man,” for instance, recalls the glorious Spaghetti Western of Ween’s epic “Buenos Tardes, Amigos.” Similarly, some of the subject matter remains, um, idiosyncratic — “El Shaddai” seems to narrate the flight of the Jews from Egypt, although someone with a better grasp on biblical history than me may be able to offer more insight, while “Black Bush” deploys a lot of trippy nature imagery and the Hindi verb “prashansa karna,” which can mean anything from “to sing” to “to eulogize.” There’s something of a devotional feeling to the whole record, actually — “There Is a Form” seems to narrate nothing less than the act of divine creation, which isn’t something you’d have expected to find on Chocolate and Cheese.

Indeed, while the press release insists, “These are the same songs I would’ve written in Ween — except without Mickey [Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween],” I’m not entirely sure that’s true. While there’s an abiding sense of weirdness to these songs, the feeling of listening to Ween and never knowing whether they were being entirely serious… that’s gone, pretty much, replaced by a new-found earnestness that Freeman wears surprisingly well.

The album’s best moments are its most intimate and direct — “Covert Discretion,” for instance, is a straight-up narration of the pressures of touring and the difficulty of reconciling an addictive personality with the toxic combination of temptation and boredom. The love songs are even more affectless and beautiful — “More Than the World” is as plaintive a declaration of love as you’re likely to hear anywhere this year, while “All the Way to China” continues the theme of mining exotic lands for subject matter and imagery, and produces some genuinely beautiful lyrics: “The light is forever/ The light is all we know/ Beauty is a vessel/ And the wind will carry you home.”

If Freeman has finally found peace (and, hopefully, sobriety), then, y’know, good for him. It certainly suits his songwriting.