BEN FOLDS FIVE, with its misleading three members, reunited back in 2011 to create their fourth studio album. Although the 11 years since their break-up in 2000 had been made easier for many fans by Ben Fold’s successful solo career, it was still an exciting prospect. The band released The Sound of the Life of the Mind in September 2012, a fantastically mature record with typical ‘Ben Foldsy’ melodies and beautiful lyrical touches. But we’re not here to talk about this century.
Ben Folds Five’s eponymous debut was released on the 8th of August 1995. Though it would be only three years until the roaring successes of singles such as ‘Brick’ and ‘Army’, it failed to chart except for in Japan and Australia. However, the trio did manage to attract the attention of major-labels who entered into a bidding war for the band (who eventually chose to sign to Sony).
There’s so much range contained within the album, yet it’s all recognisable as distinctly Ben Folds Five. There are upbeat tracks such as ‘Julianne’ which are almost manic, and then the much calmer pieces like ‘Boxing’ which give the listener the time and space to appreciate the ever-narrative lyrics. Especially indicative of this musical storytelling is ‘Uncle Walter’, telling the tale of somebody stuck listening to their elderly uncle droning on about old stories and life lessons.
The simply incredible piano bits in tracks like ‘Philosophy’, which I have tried and failed to replicate more times than I care to mention, give an element of grace which really nicely contrasts with the witty but often very silly lyrics. Of course, the music of Ben Folds Five is and always has been rooted in piano. The absence of any lead guitar parts in the album was a striking divergence from the alternative rock scene of the time. And yet, it still does manage be alternative rock – likely a combination of fuzzy basslines from Robert Sledge, sublime drumming from Darren Jessee, and the often relentless bashing of the black and white keys by Mr. Folds himself.
‘Underground’ is another standout track for me, with a misleadingly slow introduction and terrifically funny lyrics which soon turn into a catchy and uplifting song. The backing vocals, offbeat drumming and piano, and absolutely cracking bassline in ‘Where’s Summer B.’ also make for easy listening.
I’ll admit that Ben Folds Five is probably my least favourite album from the trio. But that should speak volumes about the quality of the subsequent of three rather than anything else. I think that the lyrics, integral to the work of Ben Folds Five, gain maturity along with the band members, and I personally prefer the less thrashy and more melodic sounds found in The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. But hey, what a fantastic start 1995 was for Folds, Sledge and Jessee, who’d go on to find so much critical, commercial and creative success.