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Music

25 years ago, Ween refused to compromise on the goofy and whimsical 'The Mollusk'

@TylerGolsen

This story starts back in 1992 when one of the most unlikely events in rock history occurred – Pennsylvania experimental goofball rockers Ween got signed to a major label. There was an assortment of rock acts that got swept up in the alternative gold rush that followed the success of Nirvana in the early 1990s, but of all the bands who managed to land a major label deal, Ween were by far the most puzzling.

Nothing from the duo’s early cassettes or first two albums, 1990’s GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and 1991’s The Pod, even hinted at anything that could be seen as ‘commercial’. Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo created a new style of music, dubbed it the ‘Brown Sound’, adopted brotherly stage names, and set forth to freak out as many audiences across America as possible. Whether you were disturbed or enthralled by their eccentric and occasionally nightmarish form of rock, Ween was certainly unforgettable.

Thanks to the major windfall that came from housing acts like Metallica and Mötley Crüe, Elektra Records could sign some of the more unique acts floating around the rock scene, including jam gods Phish, Icelandic weirdos The Sugarcubes, and OG alternative duo They Might Be Giants. In fact, TMBG’s Flood proved to be a moderate crossover success, eventually being certified platinum in 2009. Perhaps Elektra saw Ween and imagined they could be another TMBG.

They were not. 1992’s Pure Guava is one of the wackiest major-label albums of all time, and although 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese contained some massive leaps in terms of conventional songwriting and more polished production, there were still songs like ‘Spinal Meningitis and ‘I Can’t Put My Finger On It’ that were actively antagonistic against the radio, the mainstream, and even some of the band’s fans themselves. Somehow Elektra allowed Ween to record a full album of old-school country songs, complete with authentic instrumentation from sessions players with decades of experience playing for legitimate country icons.

By 1997, Ween were still looking to experiment, but now they had a more focused direction. That’s not to make it sound normal – imagine being pitched a concept album about nautical sea creatures that featured sea shanties, crunchy guitars, and massive waves of psychedelic sound effects.

What Ween really did on The Mollusk is take the whimsicalness and goofiness of The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’, filter it through their own cracked lens, and create a surprisingly palatable final product. The Mollusk has something for everyone, even those who are turned off by the sophomoric humour and bizarre preoccupations with Boognish that normally surround the Ween catalogue. Ripping guitar, drunken sing-alongs, unlikely pop hits, and, yes, dick jokes abound on The Mollusk.

Despite the band’s signature ability to blend genres, The Mollusk manages to have a cohesive sound, even if that sound can best be described as “underground carnival sideshow music.” The journey starts, fittingly, with an introduction: ‘I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight’, a classic vaudeville number that finds Freeman’s vocals modulated between unsettling lows and unnatural highs. Thankfully, the immediate plunge into ‘The Mollusk’ brings a serenity to the nautical setting that the band choose to explore.

There’s a noticeable sheen to the music on The Mollusk – instruments sparkle and shine, even though most of the material was recorded in non-professional spaces. Along with the following year’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, The Mollusk paired extreme weirdness with the expansive sensibilities of Brian Wilson’s best work. It was DIY meets infinite possibilities, which becomes equalling enthralling and hilarious on songs like ‘The Blarney Stone’ and ‘Waving My Dick in the Wind’.

After hearing an endless parade of songs focusing on children without eyes, dead dads, and mutilated lips, The Mollusk keeps its most surprising curveball for last – an actual honest-to-god pop song. Not that ‘Ocean Man’ was a crossover success at first: it was originally the B-side to the ‘Mutilated Lips’ single, and when it got its own single release, it didn’t even chart on the alternative-friendly rock charts.

Then came its ties to SpongeBob SquarePants, which immediately sent ‘Ocean Man’ out of the Earth’s gravitational pull and into a world completely separate from The Mollusk and even Ween themselves. When the 2010s saw the dawn of meme culture, ‘Ocean Man’ was right there with it, primed for increasingly ridiculous content. But ‘Ocean Man’ isn’t a joke – it’s the perfect encapsulation of Ween’s ability to write memorable hooks, something that floated just below the surface all along.

For what it was worth, The Mollusk was the first Ween album to chart on the Billboard 200, all the way down at number 159. But I doubt that even registered for the band – now a fully-formed five-piece, Ween’s live shows became a major draw as their lo-fi aesthetic transformed into tighter and tighter performances. Chaos was always a necessary element of the Ween experience, but suddenly the band were able to replicate that chaos in a controlled, and highly listenable, setting.

The major label run would end after their next album, 2000’s White Pepper, but it remains more surprising that Ween ever got on a major label in the first place. Their brief five-record output on Elektra remains one of the strangest runs ever supported by a major label in the history of popular music, but it was worth it to give the band the freedom to make The Mollusk. Even in 2022, the album still sounds radical in its refusal to compromise anything that made Ween so curious, so maddening, and so uniquely fantastic.