As reported by Stereogum, Ben Folds Five reunite tomorrow night for a show in their home town to play their final release, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, in its entirety. It’s arguably the high point of Folds’ career: the solo releases that followed lacked its consistency of tone and concept and never held its emotional resonance. It felt like Folds had slipped and fallen into the middle of the road.
Messner is a more melancholy take on Ben Folds Five’s irony-laden, catchy alt. pop, traces of which remain in ‘Army’, which details the adolescent desire to escape small town malaise by any means possible, even joining the military. It’s only a gesture towards a typical single though, resplendent as it is with horns and harmonies, fitting in with the reoccuring musical motifs of the album.
Predecessor Whatever and Ever Amen closed with the heartbreaking ‘Evaporated’, a song that detailed regret, loss and a numbness to both, dying to a whisper. Messner opens with ‘Narcolepsy’, which while thematically similar, bursts into an orchestrated explosion of baroque ’70s melodrama which resurfaces on the Darren Jessee-penned ‘Magic’. ‘Narcolepsy’ is followed by the more measured ‘Don’t Change Your Plans’, which captures that stomach-churning feeling of leaving someone you love behind because “destiny is calling and won’t hold”.
Part of Messner’s enduring appeal for me is how well it works as a suite of songs, with lyrical and musical themes reoccuring throughout. The album closes as it opens with a song about sleep, reinforcing the album’s themes of displacement and withdrawal from the world.
Ben Folds Five have never attracted approval from the hipster set and were dismissed as lightweight ’90s pop for college students. It’s a shame, because as Messner shows, they were capable of crafting classic pop music. I urge you to scour the bargain bins for a copy.
Video: Army (embedding disabled, boo!)
An interesting curiosity from the same period as this record is the retro experimentation of Folds’s solo project Fear of Pop Vol. 1. It largely consists of Folds messing around in the studio, but is notable for ‘In Love’ which features a monologue from William Shatner about the rise and fall of a relationship. Brilliant.
Stream: In Love