As one of half of Ween, Aaron Freeman is expected to do the unexpected. But even by Gene Ween’s adventurous standards, Marvelous Clouds is a curveball. Freeman’s first solo record pays tribute to Rod McKuen, a songwriter, artist, and poet who became a big star in the ’60s when his compositions were covered by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and scores of other artists. McKuen’s star has since faded; Freeman hadn’t even heard of him when producer Ben Vaughn pitched the idea of doing a record of his songs. But even more surprising than the source material is how Freeman presents it on Marvelous Clouds: In the parlance of Ween, this is easily the least “brown” album he’s ever made.
Setting aside the myriad vocal effects and other demented touches that he’s applied to twist and pervert Ween songs since the early ’90s, Freeman sings in his own voice on Clouds, crooning over pleasantly upbeat and immaculately performed pop, rock, and lightly jazzy arrangements. Upon first listen, Marvelous Clouds sounds like the straight-faced and defiantly middle-aged soft-rock record Freeman has long threatened to make. And, given the ample schmaltziness of McKuen’s songs, it is that.
But just as Ween albums have deeper, darker layers that are overlooked by those inclined to view them purely as wise-ass goofs, Marvelous Clouds is a heartfelt statement of purpose from a man in the process of putting his life back together. Whimsical yet probingly philosophical songs like “A Man Alone” and “Pushing The Clouds Away” obviously spoke to Freeman, whose been battling in recent years to maintain his sobriety. And he’s taken these songs into his heart and made them his own, turning “The Beautiful Strangers” into a spacey Pink Floyd jam with a stinging guitar solo, and digging deep into the lightly fatalistic road song “Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name.” As he’s done so often in his career, Freeman has taken a funny idea and pulled emotional and profound music out of it.