Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #85. Ween – “Birthday Boy”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 23, 2007

“You’re no longer a teenager, you’re a full-grown 20…”

All right, so full disclosure: this isn’t actually the 85th best song of all-time. My original list had it pegged at #77, which still seems about right to me. But fuck it, I turn 21 today, and I don’t really feel like writing about paranoid southern rap, so that’s gonna have to wait until next week. And of course, apologies to Gene and Dean for the eight-place insult–know that the moral victory is yours after the next eight classics, at least.

Birthday Boy” is by far my favorite birthday song of all-time. Which is sort of strange, I suppose, because a) superficially at least, the song is only tangentially about birthdays, and b) it’s actually kind of a downer. If I really felt like celebrating today, which I do, I should probably be writing about Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet 16,” or that super-enthusiastic Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday,” or at the very least, The Sugarcubes’ bittersweet”Birthday” (whcih, truth told, I am sort of bummed there isn’t room for on this list). But despite the undeniable joy and general celebratory vibes of those songs, they don’t get what a birthday’s really about for me. And “Birthday Boy” sort of does.

Ween’s not a band whose songs are generally associated with great displays of emotion. The number of love songs in their catalogue probably just outnumbers the number of songs about pot or tacos, and generally the songs about pot or tacos are better anyway. But if you insist to one of their fans that Ween are just a joke band, they’ll probably slice your throat before you get the last word out, and that’s because of songs like “Birthday Boy,” which is one of the most powerful, sincere indie love songs I’ve ever heard. It’s still a Ween song, for certain–the half-dozen false starts, the ridiculously lo-fi production, the outro courtesy of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” (the point of which I’m still unclear on, which is probably the point to begin with)–but even on an album full of lunacy as inspired as 1990’s GodWeenSatan, “Birthday Boy” is a hell of a blindsider.

The song’s story, as told in the first two verses and chorus, is a relatively simple and classic one–guy lets girl go, thinks he’s glad to do so, but then realizes how much he misses her, and how lonely he is without her. It’s devestating, though–partly because of the poignancy of the lyrics (“When the wind blows, and there’s a chill in the air / I hope that someone is taking care of you”), but mostly because of the song’s presentation–a simple guitar & vocal affair, but rather than play it for a cheap acoustic ballad, Ween turn the amps up to 17 and play one of the most heartfelt guitar lines you’ve ever heard as if it was something off of Raw Power. It’s almost as if they wanted to ensure that no college sophmore assholes would cheapen their masterpiece by using it to get laid (luckily for them, Extreme’s “More Than Words” was released one year later and the issue became a moot point).

But the section that seals the deal for “Birthday Boy” is after the second chorus, when two answering machine messages that Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman got on his birthday are played (don’t know if they were for real or not, but it doesn’t really matter). Broadcast while the super-melancholy riff is still playing, it makes me feel like just about every birthday has since I got out of High School–not so much a time for unmitigated joy and partying, but more of a time for serious reflection, for thinking about the things your life is lacking and the things that you should probably try to fix over the next year. And even though it seems unrelated to the rest of the song, it’s exactly the conclusion that “Birthday Boy” needs, because it’s getting answering machine messages like that that probably would prompt Gene to write this song.

So salut, Gene and Dean. I’ll see if they have Meddle on the jukebox at the bar tonight.

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6 Responses to “100 Years, 100 Songs: #85. Ween – “Birthday Boy””

  1. Undercooked Sausage said

    Wonderful.

  2. Undercooked Sausage said

    at the same time, fuck you for downing weens placement just because you were in the “mood”

  3. potential Ween fan said

    No links anymore?

  4. Andrew Unterberger said

    Hm, I don’t always link to every song I mention (though I try to when I have the time) but I did mean to at least link for “Birthday Boy.” Apologies, I’ll add that momentarily.

  5. […] while I’m partying by myself because I’m such a special guy, you can either read about the best birthday-related song in music history or dig on the following underrated songs from […]

  6. Raumluftentfeuchter…

    […]100 Years, 100 Songs: #85. Ween – “Birthday Boy” « Intensities in Ten Suburbs[…]…

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