By Clayton Ambrose
Album: The Mollusk
Release Date: June 21, 1997
This is probably not the first 20th anniversary article you have read this year, and it certainly will not be the last. If it is not one of the many retrospectives on Radiohead’s OK Computer, you might see fond reminiscing on Bjork’s Homogenic, Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, or any of the other classics and minor classics released in 1997. Due to the stature and pedigree of some of these musical juggernauts, it might be easy to gloss over an album like The Mollusk. It is understandable why this project might be overlooked in favor of others. It certainly does not claim the cultural impact that an album like OK Computer does (unless you count being an inspiration for the creation of Spongebob Squarepants, which, of course I do). However, this album is important because it exists as a microcosm through which one experiences the bigger picture of Ween themselves, who are one of the greatest and most unique alternative rock acts of the past century. Ween scholars may argue for eternity over whether or not The Mollusk is their best album, but I would say that it is their most perfect album. It takes from both their trademark strangeness and their exceptional talents to create something that stands as a monument to everything that makes Ween undeniably Ween.
Ween came together in 1984 when Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo met at their junior high school in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The band originally was only comprised of Freeman and Melchiondo, who took up the stage names Gene Ween and Dean Ween, respectively, and a drum machine, using a four track recorder to create their mad works in the comfort of their home. They performed and recorded albums in this manner from 1984 to 1993, during which the band became known for their unique and bizarre lo-fi sound with albums like GodWeenSatan, The Pod, and Pure Guava. “Push th’ Little Daisies”, one of the lead singles off of Pure Guava, provided one of Ween’s first doses of mainstream attention by being featured on Beavis and Butthead in 1992. The band then hit the studio for the first time for their 1994 album, Chocolate and Cheese, which took their oddball musical style into the glorious world of high fidelity. For The Mollusk, Gene and Dean decided to return to their roots and record the album at home in a rented beach house on the shores of New Jersey, which undoubtedly had an influence on the album’s prevailing oceanic motifs. After a broken water pipe destroyed their recording equipment, the two took a detour to record 1996s country-only 12 Golden Country Greats before completing the recording for The Mollusk and releasing it on June 21, 1997.
Because of their career preceding it, The Mollusk stands out as one of Ween’s more serious and consistent albums; a trend they would follow in the years after. The album does find humor in absurdity as with the vulgar sea shanty “The Blarney Stone”, the country-infused heartbreak anthem “Waving My D**k In The Wind”, or its childlike show-tune intro “I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight”. Compared to their previous works, The Mollusk has less determinedly comedic moments. These momentary departures from farce lead to some of Ween’s most grand material like the epic, orchestral “Buckingham Green”, a song containing one of Dean’s most spectacular guitar solos. Then the intensely psychedelic romp “The Golden Eel”, in which Gene continuing Ween’s long history of pitch shifted vocals details an encounter with an all-knowing and most likely hallucinated golden eel whose words he “cannot reveal”. It also leads to some of Ween’s most somber tunes, like the down-tempo break up ballad “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”, and “She Wanted To Leave” a sailor’s mournful retelling of lost love at sea over a melancholic prog-rock tune. The album sinks to its most thematically grim with “Cold Blows The Wind”, Ween’s take on “The Unquiet Grave”, an English folk song about a man who grieves for his deceased lover “for twelve months and one day”.
Although the album can be uncharacteristically stern, The Mollusk is not without plentiful instants of levity. “Ocean Man”, most likely the album’s most well-known song, is a rollicking psych-pop journey through nonsensical nautical imagery as Gene pleads to the titular Ocean Man, “take me by the hand, lead me to the land/that you understand”. The light-hearted waltz “Polka Dot Tail” takes the listener through outlandish lyrics like “Have you ever seen a whale with a polka dot tail?/Did you ever see a man with eight fingers on his hand?”. There’s even a palette cleanser for the dreariness in the form of “Pink Eye – On My Leg”, a playful instrumental that immediately follows “Cold Blows The Wind”. The album reaches its jovial peak on its title track, which oozes whimsy with fluttering keyboards that fly in and out of earshot over a fantastical recounting of the discovery of the mystical and divine Mollusk. It is all capped off with a mesmerizing monologue from Gene that ends with a jubilant explosion of synthesizers.
The Mollusk (to me) is a representation of all that makes Ween terrific and memorable. With this album, Dean and Gene Ween, managed to effortlessly blend various styles and genres while adding their own eccentric spin resulting in something that is beyond comparison. Through this album and the rest of their discography, Ween has produced something truly timeless, something that does not belong to any movement, genre, or moment. They are simply, eternally Ween. Although The Mollusk is a work of greatness, it admittedly gives off a silly impression that may cause people to miss the genius underneath and mistake Ween for a novelty. To be honest, I was almost guilty of missing the excellence of The Mollusk myself. “Ocean Man” was nothing more to me than that song that played over the end credits of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. I would eventually go through the stages that any eventual fan of the band goes through, beginning with ignorance and ending in devotion. The Mollusk is the perfect place to begin that journey.