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Concept Album Corner - 'Absolutely Free' by The Mothers of Invention
The question of what is and what is not considered ‘art’ has always permeated our culture. Art has the ability to allow people a form of expression without words, to distill a thought or an idea in its most primal form in our subconscious. Therefore, as all people have different ideologies and differing thought processes, ‘art’ is a very subjective thing. Works that may have symbolic meaning to one person may communicate something else entirely, or perhaps nothing at all aside from weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Concept albums can be a very fitting example of this, as musical themes and messages (assuming that is what the artist is going for) can be portrayed with a great deal of subtlety and symbolism (some perhaps a bit more subtle than others). Concept albums, by definition, are albums that are meant to revolve around a theme or an idea, with each song relating back to that major theme. Even if that theme is nothing more than recurring musical motifs, the amount of interpretations that can be made from those recurring tunes would be Olympian in scope.
This is where The Mothers of Invention come in, or perhaps a bit more accurately titled: The Frank Zappa Band. Frank Zappa was a prolific cult singer/songwriter, virtuoso guitarist, and anti-censorship activist. With a sprawling collective work of seventy-five albums, combining his solo career and his band The Mothers of Invention, he grew in status in the seventies and the eighties most likely due to his genre-busting musical ability. His musical senses would range from straightforward rock, free-form jazz, musique concrete, and even some classical music, interchanging from very experimental music to more accessible and catchy music, but almost always filled with bizarre, mocking, and/or often humorous lyrics. His anti-establishment viewpoints certainly show up in his songs and lyrics, though they come full-force in interviews and even at a Senate meeting wherein he unscrewed the heads of the moral guardians that are the PMRC and promptly defecated a stream of criticism down their neck.
He was also a long-time friend, collaborator, and even rival to a Mr. Don Van Vliet (for those of you who know who this man is, you may give yourself a pat on the back). Whether this says anything about Zappa’s work or Van Vliet’s work is your call. Regardless, Zappa is nothing if not unique.
Today, we’re taking a look at the second album he made with The Mothers of Invention, Absolutely Free. Absolutely Free is supposedly a sequel to a trilogy of concept albums of the band’s first three albums (fairly ambitious move to start your work off with not one, not two, but three concept albums, I think). As a concept album, this one is perhaps a bit more difficult to decipher than most others. At a first glance, there are certainly recurring musical elements: numerous reprises of songs and lyrics pop up throughout the album, as well as recurring ideas (vegetables, prunes, plastic, and straightforward high-school blues, as a few examples). The meanings and symbolism behind the use of these ideas, however, are about as clear as a red wine (for the most part). Zappa definitely whips out and flaunts social commentary on the album, but it doesn’t seem to mesh together. Musically, each song flows right into the next with virtually no seams, but the subject of each song could arguably use a little more work in that regard.
Upon a second listening, though, one can start to mesh the album into, perhaps not one unified concept, but rather two concepts, differing sides of the same coin perhaps (this idea is probably supported by the fact that this album was originally released on a thing called a ‘record’ that one would have to flip in order to hear the rest of the album – strange, I know). Wikipedia notes that this was probably intentional for the album, as Zappa entitled the entire second side of the album “Suite No. 2: The M.O.I American Pageant”.
If you will, allow me to dig a bit deeper into the songs to give you an idea of what I mean.
1.) Plastic People– The very first track opens with a mock introduction of The President of the United States who, along with his wife, can only recite the melody to ‘Louie, Louie’. The song goes on with its major chorus -- Plastic people/Oh baby/Now you’re such a drag --, interlaced with seemingly random bits of dialogue on political and social matters, dispassionately and emotionless recited by (I believe) Zappa himself. The social commentary seems pretty obvious here: Plastic people describes authority figures or socialites (much like politicians) that, while they pretend to care and be concerned about most modern issues, pretending to be ‘hip’ or ‘cool’, there is really nothing but shallowness and thoughtlessness behind their actions, behaving more like machines of conformity, dolling themselves up for public display. Then go home/And check yourself/You think we’re singing/Bout someone else.
2.) The Duke of Prunes – The opening to The Duke of Prunes is a rather sweet, classical sounding piece of experimental rock. Zappa sings in…some kind of European accent I can’t quite nail down (I’ll assume Transylvanian). The lyrics are, like most of Zappa’s work, intentionally bizarre and silly, meant to parody silly little love songs that go something along the lines of “You look beautiful tonight. I love you. I have a present for you. It is a good present.” That present, in this case, being prunes and cheese. This is the first in a triad of songs revolving around the title character…supposedly.
3.) Amnesia Vivace – A mostly instrumental piece comprised with intentionally obnoxious wailing and rambling. Here Zappa seems to bring to mind the eventual end of romantic relationships, regardless of the passion (or, maybe, because of the lack of it) – “I’ll never forget you darling. Oh, I suppose I’ll forget you someday. In fact, I’ve already forgotten you. Who are you again? Nice to see you again.”
4.) The Duke Regains His Chops – A faster, more rock-oriented reprise of the Duke of Prunes that started this mess, perhaps representing the endless cycle of romantic relationships. As soon as we end a relationship, we enter into another one that may or may not end the exact same way, rinsing and repeating always and always.
5.) Call Any Vegetable – A fast-paced, jazzy piece advertising the value of vegetables, and that you should call them because the chances are good that they’ll respond to you (which, I suppose, is true. They certainly won’t interrupt you). The song starts to go into this slowly maddening bit about confiding your secrets to vegetables…I think. Really, I have no clue what the symbolism is meant to be here. If we’re going for an interpretation on human beings, I guess it’s a song about communication and tolerance of each other. At the very least, the tune is catchy…
6.) Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin - …which is more than I can say for the sixth track. Invocation is a solid seven minute instrumental jam session. As per usual, most albums from the late sixties/early seventies seemed to have at least one long instrumental jam session, probably meant as dance music or meditation music. Generally, I’m not a fan of this. Tracks like this can get tedious, as this one certainly does, with either very little variation or an incoherent melody (in this case, I feel it is the latter). My belief is that tracks like this are meant to show off the band’s abilities on their instruments, based on how fast they can play them or how uniquely they play them. Personally, I prefer music that focuses on setting a mood or a tone. If a band just wants to show off how well they play their instruments, that feels like little more than musical masturbation.
7.) Soft Cell Conclusion – Much like the Prunes triad, the Vegetables follow the same formula, with a reprise of the beginning track that is much more ‘rock’ or ‘blues’ oriented in this case. There is a beginning monologue that further advertises the greatness of friendship with vegetables, growing more and more surreal with each passing sentence. The song then resumes its usual tune with a Beefheart-sounding man on vocals. We are then treated to the heavy breathing of the pumpkin from the interlude…I really have no idea.
This is where the first side of the album ends. There is an interlude between this and the next side: two singles, Big-Leg Emma and Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?. There isn’t much to say about these: Blues-oriented, catchy, nothing more outside of quirky, odd, somewhat funny singles.
10.) America Drinks – The second side of the album begins and ends with the song America Drinks as a sort of book-end to the whole thing. The first one opening the second-side begins with a fairly normal jazzy cymbal beat, accompanied by intentionally bad ‘doot-do-do-doot’s. Zappa croons a Sinatra-esque ballad about love, meant to mock love songs once again, this time of the Sinatra-era variety. His only accompaniment is a bass and the repetitive cymbal beat, all of which clash with each other in a disorienting, hazy way. This is probably not helped by the echoey quality of Zappa’s voice.
11.) Status Back Baby – Much like the blues-oriented interlude, Status Back Baby is, as described by Zappa himself, “A dumb song for dumb teenagers”. The song concerns a young teenager, worried about losing his social status at high school (again, more social commentary). I rather like this song, personally. Being a high school student, it’s nice to listen to a good mocking of people who worry about where they stand at a place that, in a few years, won’t matter in the long run of things. The song is pretty simple and straightforward (well, that is unless you know about Zappa’s sense of humor; if not, it’s even more simple and straightforward).
12.) Uncle Bernie’s Farm – Changing the pace with something a little more rock n’ roll – one might even say punk-ish – Uncle Bernie’s Farm’s title comes from a plastic (possible themes?) toy with the same name. The song regards the rude, weird, and sometimes violent nature of children’s toys being advertised with little regard to the possible influence on the kids. Zappa, while also being very fond of anti-censorship, also held many anti-conformity and anti-commercialism ideals.
13.) Son of Suzy Creamcheese – A fast-paced, somewhat irritating song about a girl named Suzy Creamcheese, not her son. Zappa, if one couldn’t tell, was a big fan of B-movies and the like; schlock that had titles like Son of (insert title here) or the likes. As for Suzy Creamcheese, she is actually a recurring character throughout most of Zappa’s work, back to The Mothers of Invention’s very first album, Freak Out. Outside of that, the song doesn’t really seem to have any connection the rest of the work as a whole.
14.) Brown Shoes Don’t Make It – And now the penultimate piece of the album; a seven-minute long micro-opera. Many critics have regarded this piece as an early masterpiece of Zappa’s, and regarded by many as an essential song for any self-respecting Zappa fan. Some have described it as a “two-hour long condensed musical”. Throughout, the song shifts musical tones that fit the mood of the piece, from hard rock to classical to psychedelic rock to music hall to jazz. The music starts with a simple idea rather than a story, mocking what Zappa loves to mock the most: TV, conformity and greed (with very little regard to subtlety in his mocking, mind you). Then the song shifts gears into telling the story of the day-to-day life of a morally corrupt politician, who goes into his perverted fantasies. As a rule, HubPages generally forbids the use of overt sexual stuff in their articles/blogs. You can imagine my conundrum with this song. Probably best (or worst) of all is that it is meant to be played as something comedic. Zappa, in general, found the idea of sex funny, no matter what the perversion. Overall, it’s probably one of the best songs on the album if not the best.
15.) America Drinks and Goes Home – And on the second side, we’ve come full circle. This time, the song is played a bit more straight as a crooning jazz, lounge ballad, interlaced with the yammer and chatter of a bar scene, the metallic ringing of a cash register in the background. The sounds are meant to parody what it was like for The Mothers of Invention to play live before they signed onto a record. Despite being a parody of lounge-love songs, the tune (now that it is played with harmony) is actually very nice to listen to, background music and all.
Frank Zappa is an odd duck, to say the least. Deciphering the lyrics and the meaning behind them is as difficult as solving a Chinese finger puzzle. One can definitely pick out easy answers to the symbolism behind it all, on tracks like Plastic People and Brown Shoes Don’t Make It. But for the most part, Zappa is so fond of the absurd and the nonsensical, especially in the Vegetable triad, that placing any meaning to his songs is like citing the show Adventure Time as a profound look at the futility of man and his ever-dwindling cycle of hopelessness and blah blah blah. Perhaps the concept of the album remains in nothing more than recurring musical motifs. Yet still, I can’t shake this feeling that Zappa intended for there to be some kind of deeper meaning.
Overall, however, whether there is a concept or not doesn’t entirely seem to matter (aside from the purposes of this blog). Zappa’s lyrics, on their own, remain humorous, bizarre, and certainly poignant at times. As a musician, Zappa has certainly earned his place as an admired composer/musician. If you’re fascinated by strange, strange men like Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, this is an album that is worth your time