“Ben is making very strange sounds
with his mouth. This has been going on for some time.” When Ben Folds’s elementary school
teacher wrote that in a note to his parents, she had no idea of the eventual truth of her words
. I certainly can’t think of a better way to sum up the career of Ben Folds.
Six years after the formation of his band, Ben Folds Five, and only a year after its untimely dissolution, the thirty-something Ben Folds has just released another record and seems to be set on making strange noise for some time to come.
Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ben Folds now lives in Adelaide, Australia with his wife, Frally Hynes. His Chapel Hill roots have always played a large part in his music, especially in songs like Your Redneck Past, and Best Imitation of Myself, which both deal with Folds’s conflicting feelings about his Southern heritage.
"Do you think I should take a class/
To lose my Southern accent?," he sings in Best Imitation of Myself. "Did I make me up/
Or make a face ‘til it stuck?/
I do the best imitation of myself."
Most of Ben’s music is not this personal, however. Whereas most popular musicians these days release an album that is basically fifteen examples of their own failed attempts at love, Ben Folds is a true storyteller. He observes the world around him and creates characters and stories in his songs that are alternately depressing and funny. He chronicles the lives of characters everyone has seen at some point, like the luckless Fred Jones, whose job gets taken from him by young upstarts in the song Fred Jones Part 2. Or One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, which relates the tale of a kid who gets beaten up in school and later on becomes rich and powerful and assembles all his old tormentors so he can rub it in their faces. Or Army, the story of a kid who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life, who’s working at Chic-Fil-A and playing in a band, but always has a fascination with joining the army.
"You know he’s been around the world/
Last night he flew to Baghdad/
In his magical armchair/
With cigarettes and a six-pack," He sings in Uncle Walter, another prime example of his masterful storytelling. "Yeah, he just got back/
The spit’s flying everywhere."
In an interview with GlobeandMail.com, Folds discussed the commercial failure of his two most recent albums. “I need to go back and make some pop songs,” he said.
But Ben Folds is anything but a pop artist. Besides being a truly gifted musician (he played all the instruments on Rockin’ the Suburbs), he is a poet of the truest kind. The songs from his most recent effort reveal this:
it hurts to grow up
but everybody does
it’s so weird to be back here
let me tell you what
the years go on and
we’re still fighting it
and you’re so much like me
-Still Fighting It
Each album he releases is more a collection of stories and vignettes than pop songs. And each album has the same kind of continuity and encompassing theme that a book of short stories does.
Each record seems to be a compilation of experiences and observances from a specific point in Ben Folds’s life. "I’ve always noticed that every collection of songs I’ve done on record makes me think, 'Wow, I'm older,'" says Folds in his bio on benfoldsonline.com. “I think it's my way of keeping my chronicle updated.”
His earlier work with Ben Folds Five is rough, raw, and somewhat unprofessional, partly due to the band’s use of their house as a recording studio. “I've always stuck up mics everywhere, pressed ‘record’ and everybody plays,” says Ben.
But there is also a lot of simple charm in his earlier work that disappears later on. With each successive album by Ben Folds Five, more additional instrumentation and editing emerged. Perhaps it was when this all became too much that the three members of Ben Folds Five decided to call it quits.
Ben Folds’s music has many influences, from classic jazz to straight-up metal. As such, his music is difficult to classify. There are some songs of his that are clearly straight rock, but some have the harder, edgier characteristics of heavy metal, and he has also written his fair share of soft, melodic ballads. He never seems content sticking with one genre for too long. The one constant throughout his work is the powerful stories and poetic lyrics.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Ben Folds is his talent on the piano, especially when one considers Ben originally took up the piano as a composition tool.