“I think my attention span is probably somewhat like Elvis Costello’s – I’ve been told that before.” Ben Folds said this to me in 2016 just prior to kicking off an Australian tour alongside chamber music ensemble, yMusic. It was a reference to his continual desire to change things up over the course of a 25-year career.
Folds’ debut album came out in 1995, the first of three records he’d release that decade leading the Ben Folds Five. The band’s name was a clue to Folds’ idiosyncratic MO – they were a trio, not a quintet, who rose to fame during the alternative rock heyday. The Folds Five stood out for the absence of a guitarist, but they were more than capable of reaching rocking climaxes on par with their contemporaries.
The band split in 2000 and Folds moved straight onto a solo career. This nominal shake-up not only gave Folds enhanced artistic freedom but also the opportunity to display his multi-instrumentalist capability.
His release history hasn’t been torrential in the two decades since, but he’s approached each new project with deliberate purpose. He’s made earnest singer-songwriter records along with more pop-oriented undertakings. He’s also collaborated with author and screenwriter Nick Hornby and a variety of symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles.
Throughout it all, Folds’ dorky, nasal voice and rhythmic piano playing have been unmistakable, likewise his ability to swerve from tongue-in-cheek barbs to stark confessionals. Here are ten Ben Folds essentials.
1. You Don’t Know Me, Way to Normal (2008)
Folds made 2008’s Way to Normal with Modest Mouse and The Hives producer Dennis Herring. If his intention was to get back on the radio and rejoin the conversation, then mission accomplished. The record remains his highest-charting solo album in the US, which is thanks in large part to its utterly infectious lead single, ‘You Don’t Know Me’.
Featuring Regina Spektor on backing vocals, it’s an uptempo, string-frilled pop song about a couple falling apart – one of Folds’ specialty subjects.
2. Brick, Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
Ben Folds Five’s mainstream breakthrough, ‘Brick’, started out with a couple of lines and a melody given to Folds by drummer Darren Jesse. Folds liked the hook for its ambiguity – he claims to still not quite understand what’s meant by, “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly,” but it impelled him to faithfully retell the story of his high school girlfriend’s abortion.
Either because of or in spite of its subject matter, ‘Brick’ became a top 20 hit around the globe and remains an alternative rock staple. Folds surrounded Jesse’s chorus with a few simple chord changes and a plainspoken melody, while the thematic solemnity precluded any goofy humour. The song is better for it.
3. Underground, Ben Folds Five (1995)
Folds famously described the Ben Folds Five’s music as “punk rock for sissies.” There’s no better example of this than their breakout single, ‘Underground’, which begins with the comically narrated line, “I was never cool in school / I’m sure you don’t remember me.”
Despite being voiced by someone residing firmly outside the mainstream, ‘Underground’ found a massive following around the world and landed at #3 in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 1996. 25 years later, it still induces a giddy feeling of being part of something.
4. Landed, Songs For Silverman (2005)
Songs For Silverman was Folds’ second solo album, but it felt like a reintroduction. From its monochromatic album cover to the honest tribute contained in its title (a nod to his former A&R manager), here was Ben Folds the serious songwriter. That’s also reflected in Silverman being his most earnest collection of songs to date; the humour’s not gone, but the touchy-feely stuff takes precedence.
‘Landed’ is a paradigmatic Ben Folds power ballad – it’s melodically sophisticated and emotionally restorative with a chorus that conspicuously apes the work of Elton John.
5. Zak and Sara, Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001)
‘Zak and Sara’ is the out-and-out triumph on Folds’ solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs. Those familiar with the title track might’ve assumed the album to be little more than a Y2K novelty exercise. And while much of the track-listing finds Folds pushing against the ropes of his former band and seeing what works, even the cheesy early-aughts keyboards can’t cloak the fact that ‘Zak and Sara’ is a songwriting masterstroke.
The song’s action occurs predominantly in the mind of the titular Sara while her boyfriend, Zak, tries out some new guitars. Fans have speculated that Sara is either clairvoyant or experiencing schizophrenia. Either way, Folds connects us to Sara’s inner journey without ever trivialising her experience. For confirmation of the song’s excellence, check out Folds’ performance of it with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra.
6. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
Folds sees himself as a percussive pianist first and foremost. The final three tracks on So There consist of one interlinked piano concerto, which is rooted in marching band drum patterns rather than distinct melodic lines. Folds plays piano with a heavy left hand, which helped make the lack of guitar in Ben Folds Five a moot point.
Folds’ left hand is the driving force behind ‘One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces’, the opening number on the band’s best album, Whatever and Ever Amen. It’s a very silly song about a vengeful dwarf, but it’s delivered with an unblinking gaze, making it hard to deny.
7. Philosophy, Ben Folds Five (1995)
Track two on the Folds Five’s self-titled debut provides a pretty good summary of the band’s multifaceted constitution. In terms of contemporaneous comparisons, they sat tonally somewhere between Cake and Elliott Smith and possessed the power-pop punch of a band like Jellyfish. ‘Philosophy’ starts out sounding like a straight-up ‘Tiny Dancer’-rip, but it soon motors forward courtesy of Robert Sledge’s distorted bass playing.
The lyrics, while fairly abstract, seem to be an avowal of sticking to your guns – perhaps a reflection of its writer being not just an outcast, but also on the verge of 30. Not yet one for subtlety, Folds manages to interpolate Gershwin before the song’s end.
8. From Above, Lonely Avenue (2010)
Nick Hornby wrote all the lyrics for Folds’ 2010 release Lonely Avenue and the pair are an obvious match. The male protagonists in Hornby’s novels High Fidelity and About a Boy could easily have been lifted from Folds songs, while Folds’ tendency to merge pop classicism with an ironic wink coheres with the vision of musical excellence Hornby describes in his 2003 nonfiction collection, 31 Songs.
‘From Above’ is a bittersweet song about missed opportunities in love. Hornby’s not a natural lyricist, but in this instance, he effectively distils the notion of one’s soulmate remaining ever elusive into three verses and a chorus.
9. Army, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999)
Fans of the Canadian TV comedy Nirvana the Band the Show will recognise ‘Army’ from the show’s closing credits. It’s a goofy, joke-filled yet earnest song for a show with a goofy, joke-filled yet earnest demeanour. ‘Army’, though, was nearly 20 years old by the time it was employed by Nirvana the Band, having originally appeared on the Five’s third LP, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.
It’s a fictitious tale of a haphazard life – including failed artistic projects and multiple divorces – that you can’t help but read as somewhat autobiographical. Perhaps more significantly, it’s the Folds Five at their absolute catchiest.
10. Not A Fan, So There (2015)
For 2015’s So There, Folds teamed up with New York chamber ensemble, yMusic, who co-arranged the songs and handled all of the instrumentation barring Folds’ piano and vocals. yMusic had previously worked with indie faves Dirty Projectors and Jose Gonzalez and recorded compositions by Son Lux and Sufjan Stevens.
The album highlight is ‘Not A Fan’, a softly swaying, harmonically astute lullaby. The lyrics start out a bit too self-congratulatory, with Folds commending his own non-judgemental acceptance of his significant other’s differing tastes. But the song soon morphs into a tale of disenchantment and eventually a categorical rebuke. In a word, it’s classic Folds.
Ben Folds returns to Melbourne to perform live with the Melbourn Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, 31 January and Monday, 1 February.