“Ben Folds Five’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner Should Be Considered among the Elite Classic albums of the 1990s”

Now, I realize I’m kind of preaching to the choir, in a sense, as the only major journal that didn’t like this album was Pitchfork, whose divinely ordained scribe Brent Dicrescenzo also bad-mouthed Billy Joel and Vaudeville and chastised Steve Albini for being at the same Star Wars screening he was, in his BFF review. By and large, this seems to be an album beloved by fans, even if it is a tad occult, and one other simple anecdote I’ll share is that, in college, around 2003 or so, I was in the computer lab and somebody had left a burned (meaning “copied”) CD in the computer, and it had the words “Random Ben Folds Five” on it. And I tell you I played the SH** out of that sucker, with it what’s more acquainting me with “Lullabye,” of which I’ll make ardent subject in the paragraphs to come, you can be sure. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prove my superiority to The Lumineers by going and watching a bunch of Spider-Man sequels.

Dicrecsenzo also starts in on Folds’ selection of title, which is ironic, because that exact thing would have been a key talking point for anyone selling the album: the zany title does a great job of cloaking the LP’s strong element of emotional earnestness and intimacy, making the overall digestion of the thing more like a labyrinthine scavenger hunt, of sorts. In truth, the title actually deterred me from this project for a while: actually it made it a little bit intimidating for me, if we’re being honest. But once I got down to listening to it and heard that he was rattling off selections from the invincible Ben Folds Live, it was clear my good ol’ alt-rock teddy bear had returned into my arms.

And, just to start from the top, how about some props for an alternative rock band starting off a commercial followup with piano hogging the entire mix? “Narcolepsy” owns to a great riff, too, with the dominant eighth notes flanked, respectively, by creative, ironically placed chords which chafe the primary scale and interval and give the song a great freshness. How is this not art? Another knock on the album and this band is that they’re poseurs, or their music doesn’t deliver powerfully: Folds literally exclaims “I’m drowwwwniiiiiing!” in the middle of “Narcolepsy,” over brash, dissonant piano chords and loud drums, making “cathartic” certainly the operative word. Actually, I think I had that exact thought during “Magic”: that maybe this stuff is emotionally static, like music for Walgreens or a dentist’s office, before even that song itself escalated into urgenty mania, hence earmarking this band as one of the MORE innovative outfits of the ’90s, in terms of song structure, especially. 

“Don’t Change Your Plans,” track two, is a beast which deserves its own discourse, entirely, on its own. Somewhat unsettlingly, almost, Folds begins the song thusly: “Sometimes I get the feeling / That I won’t be on this planet / For very long / I really like it here / I’m quite attached to it / I hope I’m wrong / All I really want to say / You’re the reason I want to stay / I loved you before I met you / I met you just in time / ’Cause there was nothing left”. It had been a while since I heard this cut, so I got, yo, Folds-y, you’re really laying it all out there, aren’t you? It’s like in Seinfeld when they talk about telling a girl you love her: “That’s a pretty big Matzah Ball hanging out there if you don’t get it back.” Foolish I was, though, to doubt the artistic direction of my favorite alt-rock Ahab: he had the trick up his sleeve all the time of telling the girl “don’t change your plans,” to maintain her agenda of moving out to LA to pursue her professional career. He doesn’t explain exactly WHY he’s telling her this (I’m guessing in their phone conversations he didn’t get off so easily) but it’s almost better this way: the song has a way of lassoing up all this great beauty, like mentioning the leaves changing back east, and an overall landscape that encourages living in the moment and discourages a sort of painstaking adherence to one person or relationship, just for the sake of culture or convention. (On a kind of unrelated but interesting side note, Brent Dicrescenzo’s beloved The Dismemberment Plan explore this exact motif in “The Ice of Boston,” of the foolishness of following a lover to a strange, faraway land and expecting it to work, at one point exclaiming to Gladys Knight: “I love you / But get a liiiife!” [1]) 

“Army” is the lead single from Unauthorized Biography and I’m pretty sure all agree it’s a classic song. A couple more cuts I’d like to touch on, though, are the last two songs, “Jane” and “Lullabye.” “Lullabye,” in a sense, almost sets up Unauthorized Biography as a concept album, as it revisits the theme of sleep which is introduced on the opener “Narcolepsy.” I really don’t think Biography is a concept album, though, aside from just embodying the concept of Folds’ personal life, which he slings along like a mad singer/songwriter playing “far from his vest” [2] and weaving in enough sense of humor and imagery to make it come across palatable, not awkward. 

Anyway, “Jane” was a tune I recognized from Ben Folds Live, a solo live album featuring solely Folds’ piano and vocals, of folds, and, on one song, of John McRae of the band CAKE. Much to my delighted surprise, the track on Biography benefits roaringly from the full mix, with a gorgeous piano/organ duo undergirded by this wicked-cool eighth-note percussion sound that sounds like the Mahogany rim of a drum… maybe… for an atmosphere of cafe “cool” that’s way “cooler” than it has any business being. The song’s lyrics themselves are typically awesome, sensitive Ben Folds fare, the sympathetic examination of a girl who’s just trying to get by, trying to live her life every day, on an emotional level. Folds seems to have a preternatural gift for identifying these struggles and bringing them to light in a benevolent way, not to mention issuing little nuggets of classic diction like “You’re worried there might not be / Anything at all inside / But that you’re worried / Should tell you that’s not right”. 

“Lullabye” is probably my favorite tune on the album, an indescribable, half-celestial, half-conscious journey of folk-rock where dreams are assimilated with reality and finally, a sovereign edict comes from on high in the form of “Good night / Good night / Sweet baby / The world has more for you / Than it seems / Good night / Good night / Let the moon take the lid off your dreams”. Like Wilco’s “Citizens” (probably my second-favorite band on the planet next to BFF), “Lullabye” is built on this disarmingly simple chord progression, full of almost nothing but swagger and purpose. Folds’ voice always sounds so warm and emphatic delivering narratives like this one, which details the trappings of a dream, and delivers them with the kind of emphasis and sincerity seeming to denote the value of this dream as a portal into a tolerable world, when nothing else seems to be working (a malady implied in the album’s opener “Narcolepsy,” as well). People like to take shots and Ben Folds Five for being sensitive, I think, for singing about girls, and for whining. But maybe there’s some value in being able to admit, at the end of the day, amidst all the world’s whirling conflicts and stimuli, that, at your core, you’re really still just a “sweet baby.” 


[1] This would of course be a reference to Knight’s venerable Motown hit “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which sees her following a lover. 


[2] Fiona Apple – “O Sailor” 


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