There are great albums that open with mediocre tracks and mediocre albums that open with great tracks. But glancing at my CD collection, I can’t find an album with a more wildly incongruous opener than Ween’s Quebec. This thing blasts out the gate with “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night,” a pounding, Motörhead-spawned scorcher that would make mid-2000s music bloggers spell “rawk” with an A-W-K.
And then, all primed to expect a record full of Moistboyz-style gutter-punk, we get Ween’s most somber album by a mile. The same Pennsylvania-bred pranksters who made a career of poking fun at spinal meningitis and worshiping a fictitious demon god delivered a solemnly psychedelic album full of mournful laments. Why?
“Why” isn’t always the most useful question when it comes to Ween, a band that thrives on free-associative absurdity, but Quebec is the rare Ween album that directly reflects turmoil in the group’s personal lives. Despite the acclaim that greeted 1997’s career-best The Mollusk and 2000’s surprisingly poppy White Pepper, Dean (aka Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene Ween (aka Aaron Freeman) had fallen on some hard times by the early 2000s.
Deaner was, by his own admission, “partying way too hard,” while drummer Claude Coleman Jr. was sidelined during the recording process after narrowly surviving a car wreck, forcing Josh Freese to fill in on drums. Meanwhile, Elektra — probably noticing that Ween weren’t selling as many records as, say, Metallica — unceremoniously dropped the band when Ween’s lawyer requested an advance on their next album. (They signed to the indie Sanctuary.)
Most significantly, Gener was going through a divorce from his first wife, Sarah, about whom he’d written love songs both outlandish and sincere. “I’d been seeing her off and on since I was about 19, so a lot of those songs are about her,” the singer told PopMatters in 2003. “I kind of started off with ‘Oh My Dear (Falling In Love)’ and, 15 years later, it’s ending with a song called ‘I Don’t Want It.'” He added: “Even if it’s not direct, you can feel the beginning of the end of the breakup in these songs.”
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Quebec is a divorce album, but it doesn’t broadcast it as overtly as, say, Sea Change. Frankly, it doesn’t broadcast it at all. When Quebec arrived 20 years ago this week, following a grueling two-year recording process, Ween seemed eager to convince fans it would be a return to the “browner side” of their music — i.e., the sludgy, fucked-up sensibility that had dominated their earlier records.
That promise holds true for the first two tracks, at least. “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” leads into “Zoloft,” a creepy jingle that reps the titular prescription about as comfortingly as “Where’d The Cheese Go” rode for Pizza Hut. The sputtering drum machines, dirt-cheap Casio tones, and pitch-shifted vocals consciously summon the lo-fi haze of Pure Guava. Skipping ahead a few tracks, the chugging “So Many People In The Neighborhood,” with its queasy, noise-addled breakdown, may be the brownest song Ween have written this century.
These songs aren’t red herrings, exactly, but nor are they reflective of the wounded heart of Quebec. That’s the thing I’ve always found both fascinating and frustrating about Quebec: It feels like two very different Ween albums got jumbled together. The first — which dominates the record’s first half, along with the execrable “The Fucked Jam” — is gleefully brown, a return to the silly, genre-hopping Ween of olde. The second — which swallows up the back half, plus the psych-folk meditation “Among His Tribe” and the existence-pondering “Tried And True” — is serious as a heart attack.
Could these have been split into two separate albums? I think so. (The album’s accompanying Caesar Demos offer up more than enough leftover gems to accommodate.) It’s telling that my favorite Quebec cut, “Happy Colored Marbles,” feels caught in the middle, vacillating between nitrous-oxide pop bliss and doomy explosions of noise.
But once side two hits, Gener strips away the jokes and vocal affects and bares his soul. Sure, previous Ween albums contained the occasional “serious” ballad, but none as heavy, remorseful, or downright adult as “I Don’t Want It,” “Tried And True,” or “If You Could Save Yourself (You’d Save Us All).” The latter is a straight-up power ballad — and if you doubt that Gener really, really means it, just listen to the Caesar Demo version, where he sings out his lungs like an emo kid at open mic night.
These tracks find our buddy Gener in a disarmingly sorrowful and frankly un-Ween-like mood as he reflects upon the end of his marriage and the psychic disconnect that presaged it. In “I Don’t Want It,” he’s wistful and reflective: “I know it so well/ You tripped me and I laughed when you fell now/ This isn’t how it should be/ I’ve let you drift so far from me now.” In “If You Could Save Yourself,” he’s desperate and bitter, flailing somewhere between disbelief and acceptance: “I was on my knees/ When you knocked me down!” Here is where you realize that those dudes who wrote “Push Th’ Little Daisies” can get just as sad as you.
And yet this isn’t a Gene Ween solo album, and it certainly isn’t Ween Unplugged. Deaner’s guitar heroics alight on the mystical and magnificent “The Argus,” as well as on “Captain” and “Alcan Road,” psychedelic slow-burners that burrow into a deep, depressive haze. There’s a heaviness that engulfs this album, and it feels a long way from the playful pop of White Pepper.
In conclusion, Quebec is a land of contrasts. I mean, look: Would you forgive me if I said that jolly goofs like “Hey There Fancypants” (a fine song) and “The Fucked Jam” (an awful song) don’t belong here? It’s not just that they kill the mood — they feel like defensive gestures, attempts to reassure the Ween fanbase: “Don’t worry about us, everything’s fine here!” Sequencing “The Fucked Jam” right after “I Don’t Want It” feels like the musical equivalent of texting your friend something vulnerable and real, then hedging it by adding a “lol” at the end.
As a Ween-obsessed teenager, I wasn’t particularly fond of Quebec. I was repelled by the open-hearted mellowness of “I Don’t Want It” and “If You Could Save Yourself” and mystified by the zigzagging between brooding ballads and wacky outbursts. I wondered if all those acoustic ballads were some elaborate bit. I didn’t want to be plunged into the raw desolation of Gener’s divorce. I wanted goofy songs about waving your dick in the wind.
Then again, I was a kid — I didn’t know what heartbreak felt like. I didn’t even know what Zoloft was.
As an adult, now the same age Gener and Deaner were in 2003, I’ve warmed up to Quebec. I still find the sequencing confounding — and I still can’t really hang with the AOR cheese of “I Don’t Want It” — but the pathos is real, and it’s affecting. I’ve even grown to love “Transdermal Celebration,” a track that once irked me with its overwrought rock-radio sheen, after seeing it become an undeniable highlight of Ween’s reunion-era tours. (Have I mentioned that the guitar solo was played on Santana’s guitar without the legendary rocker’s permission? I should mention that.)
Quebec isn’t Ween’s best album, but it might be the album that makes the most serious case for Deaner and Gener as Great American Songwriters. And, in the years since its release, it’s become a cult favorite, with a small but vocal contingent of Ween’s fanbase hailing it as their masterpiece. Retired record reviewer Mark Prindle, for instance, gave Quebec his coveted 10 stars and later declared it his favorite album of the decade in a 2010 appearance on Fox News’ Red Eye. (Weird pick, but probably not one of the 100 most problematic opinions ever expressed on Fox News.) A few years later, Ween scholar Hank Shteamer (author of the excellent Chocolate And Cheese 33 ⅓) ranked Ween albums for this very website and placed Quebec at #1. “You simply can’t hear it all the way through and still think of the band as a caricature,” Shteamer argued. “This is the Ween album where shit gets real.”
And yet the album remains an anomaly in Ween’s catalog. By the time the band regrouped for their next and last album, 2007’s disjointed, fleetingly fun La Cucaracha, they had abandoned the confessional tone in favor of style-hopping pastiche. “With Quebec, I like it as a record, but it’s very negative,” Deaner reflected at the time. “It’s one of our darker records, I think. I don’t listen to any of our records, but I have never listened to that one. Basically, I was all fucked up, and Aaron was all fucked up.”
Perhaps Quebec was a divorce album in more ways than one — both a meditation on a marriage’s end, and the beginning of the end of Dean and Gene’s creative partnership, which would deteriorate by the decade’s close. The brothers Ween were starting to split in different directions, with Gene drifting towards the singer-songwriter aura he would further explore in his solo career and Dean hankering for the hard-rock sleaze of Moistboyz and, later, the Dean Ween Group.
Thankfully, before Ween came undone, they gave us Quebec, a stirring, beautiful, occasionally maddening dark night of the soul. Maybe “It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” wasn’t such an incongruous opener after all. This album is a long night indeed.