Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ ‘Absolutely Free’ Finds a Way Around the Sophomore Slump

The Zappa Project continues with Absolutely Free, the second album from the Mothers of Invention and my favorite of the early era. While not as, well, massive as Freak Out!, it’s darker and more biting. (And considering that Freak Out! didn’t exactly spare the teeth, that’s saying something.) The lyrics dabble in the more disturbing elements of Zappa’s music, and we get glimpses at his interest in classical, a genre he always loved and would devote more time to later in his career. Though not a double-LP like Freak Out!Absolutely Free somehow feels like it’s more packed. If Freak Out! used its length to spread out (without succumbing to filler like many of Zappa’s ’80s-era double albums), Absolutely Free segues its tracks more often and feels like a cohesive statement.

We also hear a lot more from Zappa himself; Freak Out! didn’t feature nearly as many asides from Zappa in the songs, but in the opening suite, we get a running commentary. “Plastic People” has the intro about the President being sick and needing some chicken soup, “The Duke Regains His Chops” features Zappa pointing out the exciting part, and “Call Any Vegetable” is introduced as it would be in a concert setting. Freak Out! feels more like a traditional album — or at least, as traditional as he got — where Absolutely Free is something different; less a collection of songs, and more a complete piece. It even came with a libretto!

Of course, there are a lot of great, straightforward songs on the album, too. I’ve always loved “Big Leg Emma” and “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?” — originally a single, but on the CD editions combined into the album; I’m generally treating the CDs as the “canonical” versions of the albums, especially as they’ve laid the plans for all reissues going forward — both songs are what Zappa called “an attempt to make dumb music to appeal to dumb teenagers,” but they work. They both have a great groove, especially “Don’tcha,” and get stuck in my head frequently.

Like Freak Out!Absolutely Free is broken into sections; where the first LP of the former was mostly songs where the second was mostly experiments, the latter’s first side is experimental, where most of the songs reside on side two. Of course, just like how Freak Out! put “Trouble Every Day” on the second disc, Absolutely Free isn’t as clean as all that; “Plastic People” doesn’t quite fit in with the suite that follows it, and side two has tracks like “America Drinks” and “America Drinks and Goes Home,” which almost make the second side feel like a grubby, Los Angeles dive bar version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Zappa seems angrier on this album as well — “Uncle Bernie’s Farm” is a scathing indictment of consumerism and the toyification of war. And, of course, there’s “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” on which more later. But even with songs like “Status Back Baby,” a parody of songs like “Be True to Your School,” there’s an edge. If Freak Out! was an introduction to Zappa and the Mothers, Absolutely Free peels back the curtain a bit more to show off more of what the Mothers are all about.

absolutely free back cover
Absolutely Free’s back cover, or, technically the bottom half of the album art, as the album was originally a gatefold.

The Cringe Box: Okay, it’s time for what will be an occasional feature of these reviews: The Cringe Box. Zappa’s known for his offensiveness, and while his offensive songs aren’t all the same, it’s still something we have to address. Songs in the Cringe Box aren’t bad, and if you like them, you’re not wrong. Some of these songs are among my very favorites — including this album’s entry, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.” I love this song. It’s got such a great riff, and the different parts of the song each build to something, and, above all, Zappa’s got a point here about power, corruption, and lies. (Well, okay, not so much the last one, but I couldn’t really miss out on the New Order joke.) It even features the brilliant Don Ellis playing trumpet on it!

But, as brilliant as “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” is — and it is — it’s also fundamentally about a man fantasizing about raping his 13-year-old daughter. The song, obviously, is not condoning this behavior — it’s deeply, explicitly critical of it, in fact. But it still can make for a difficult listen. (My dad generally skips this one, for instance.) But, thankfully, “Brown Shoes” isn’t as juvenile as some future Cringe Box entries can get — and, though it’s dark, Zappa’s clearly making a satirical point. The song’s not for everybody, but, for me, it works.

Overall, Absolutely Free is perhaps a better introduction to the Mothers than Freak Out!, just because it’s the template for what the best future Zappa records would be — messy, dark, satirical and musically outstanding. And unlike some of his later excesses, this album is concise and packs a lot into its 44 minutes. This album is, in my opinion, one of the first albums a potential Zappa fan should pick up, especially one who loves ’60s rock like the Beatles, Beach Boys and other bands beginning with B.

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