Ben Folds Five is best-known for the hit single, “Brick,” from their 1997 album, Whatever and Ever, Amen. It’s subject matter, the collateral damage that comes from a young couple’s decision to have an abortion, is a strange topic for a hit pop song, but there you have it. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is the trio’s 1998 follow-up and is, arguably, the bands best work to date.
While not necessarily biographic (the band reportedly made up the name, which was unfortunate for the several hundred Reinhold Messners who were later discovered to actually exist), the themes on Reinhold Messner lean hard toward melancholy: illness, fear, frustration, and loneliness. That said, the album is far from depressing. Speaking widely, Reinhold Messner is about adjusting to how life actually turns out verses “the illusion.” The sad and grotesque characters of the album conjure the citizens of “Winesbug, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s fictional (and bizarre) midwestern town. Like the citizens in Winesburg, the inhabitants in Reinhold Messner careen recklessly out of control for two fateful reasons: circumstances beyond their control (“Narcolepsy,” “Don’t Change Your Plans,” and “Hospital Song”) or situations rising solely from stupid decisions (“Army,” “Mess,” and “Regrets”).
Ben Folds has been called the 90’s heir to the Elton John piano-rock mantle, but I disagree. I suspect Folds is much more influenced by the wonderfully eclectic Joe Jackson, and lyrically, by the curmudgeonly, cynical Steely Dan. His piano work is tinged with jazzy improvisations and outer space noises, while his subject matter is dark and jaundiced, like the girl from your old school (“I did not think the girl could be so cruel”). In fact, Ben Folds (Five) gravitates towards the outcast and the marginalized. He/they sing(s) about what happens to those kids in school who never quite fit in: those kids who were chosen last in gym class, who never went to football games, and who spent their time on the playground digging in the dirt away from the others. With Reinhold Messner, Folds Five become their adult voice, championing their plight, and offering consolation. In the final song on the album, a hope-filled lullaby for this beleaguered crowd: “Goodnight, goodnight, sweet baby. The world has more for you than is seems...” So does this album.