BEN FOLDS FIVE: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF REINHOLD MESSNER (1999)
1) Narcolepsy; 2) Don't Change Your Plans; 3) Mess; 4) Magic; 5) Hospital Song; 6) Army; 7) Your Redneck Past; 8) Your Most Valuable Possession; 9) Regrets; 10) Jane; 11) Lullabye.
I think that one glance at the album title would be enough to understand that, third time around, the boys decided on something more overtly ambitious, experimental, perhaps even «progressive» in scope. But first things first: if you are unaware of the true identity of Reinhold Messner, and, like myself, run to Wikipedia for a quick factual check, then it is useful to know that so were the Ben Folds Five — who simply concocted a bogus name, drawn from their drummer's memories of fake IDs he used to generate while still a teenager (for whatever purposes, I don't even wanna know). Of course, for every fake name there will always be a genuine user, and the real Reinhold Messner, a famous mountaineer who was the first to climb Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, was delighted, so it is said, to have such an album written in his name. Not to mention all the wealth of post-factum analogies to be drawn from the incident — you could just as well say that yes, in a way, Ben Folds is climbing his own Mount Everest with these fourty minutes of pretentious music, and the lack of guitar might be compared to the lack of supplementary oxygen, and... but never mind, these reviews shouldn't be bullshitting you too much.
There is really no overarching lyrical or ideological concept to this collection — only some sort of semi-conscious desire to stretch out, dig in, and emerge as something more than «that cute nerdy guy and his friends making cute pop songs for college entertainment». There is no certified idea of what that «more» should consist of. Anything goes. For instance, you can write a song on your emotional turmoil, associate it with ʽNarcolepsyʼ, and populate it with grandiose string arrangements, tidal melodic dynamics, and a piano melody that seems to owe more to mid-19th century romantics than popular vaudeville. A beautiful piano melody, by the way, and the whole song goes from one state to another just the way you'd expect a narcoleptic to jump back and forth from reality into one crazy dream after another. There's a ballad in there, some noise, some doo-wop, some Queen-worthy anthemics, and other things I've forgotten, and they all hang together quite well — this isn't just some crude pasting of random snippets.
There is a general feeling of sadness permeating the entire album that isn't tremendously different from the band's usual style, but Ben's decision to «aggrandize» things means that the feeling is far more acute and permeating. Sometimes it hits you right in the face — ʽRegretsʼ, for instance, is a moody fusion-style piece with nostalgic lyrics and a soft melodic hint at tragedy that eventually gets resolved in a bombastic tempo/tonality change in the finale (with Sledge unleashing the Great Distorted Bass Serpent on our asses). ʽMessʼ is even more grim: fast-moving chamber pop that leaves no hope for the protagonist as he extorts your sympathy with a whiny, mumbly performance that Michael Stipe would have approved (it's not exactly a ʽLosing My Religionʼ, but it shares the same message).
Only once, for a brief while, does the album emerge from this moody cocoon — ʽYour Redneck Pastʼ, combining sci-fi electronic noises with an old-fashioned pop melody (and somewhat presaging the innovations of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the process), ditches personal issues and concentrates instead on lambasting the American stereotype. However, the song might just as well be taken in a personal manner — you could, for instance, try and interpret it in the context of Ben Folds' own impossibility to escape his "roots! the funny limbs that grow underground", and then it falls quite niftily in place. You thought he's trying to come up with new creative ways of expanding musical boundaries and conveying psychological turbulence with sonic ideas that bridge pop, jazz, and classical? Nope. That's just one of the "hundred ways to cover your redneck past". Goddamn frickin' North Carolina legacy.
Further highlights, too technically-grounded to discuss in details, include ʽDon't Change Your Plansʼ (particularly recommended for lovers of Ben's falsetto); ʽJaneʼ, yet another great classic era Bee Gees song that was never written by a Bee Gee (but the chorus line of "you're worried there might not be anything at all inside" is prime Barry, really); and ʽLullabyeʼ, which builds up towards a grand orchestrated jazz-classical finale that totally discredits its title, but provides the listener with a little optimistic flash of hope for the future well-being of Reinhold Messner.
A few bits of filler, a few songs that end up setting the same mood, and a relative lack of straightforward hooks compared to the album's predecessor could theoretically drag the rating of Messner down for some people, but it does not take these risks needlessly — the gamble pays off, making the record one of the most credible and impressively crafted «musical character studies» in the history of 1990s pop. Folds himself has said that Messner is his favorite record, and I have no problem believing this — he has pretty much drained himself in all possible senses here, going as deep in his self-analysis and as wide in his melodic explorations as his constitution allows him to. Unquestionably a thumbs up, and the album deserved much wider recognition than it got, despite impressive sales and a solid pop single to back them up (ʽArmyʼ, a fairly upbeat way to narrate Ben's experience of nearly failing college and considering enlisting as an alternative). Well, it's never too late to give an underrated classic another pat on the back, I guess.
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