Ben Folds' The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective exemplifies how a great "greatest hits" should be packaged, and also demonstrates some unintended consequences that an artist might face when his or her work is tied in a tight package.
Split across three discs, Folds divides his work between songs he feels represent him best, previously unreleased live records and rarities. While the three-disc package is obviously aimed at long times fans, if newcomers can handle such a submersion, the set illustrates how Folds' career is deceptively deep.
The greatest hits disc runs from the first album of the Ben Folds Five through his solo career and latter day collaborations, and ends with a new track recorded by the eponymous trio. Although most of the "hits" are represented, Folds doesn't seem to feel constrained by the radio versions that are most well known. "Smoke" is represented in the version recorded with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, expanding both the scope and sentiment of the song. "Landed" is featured in its "Strings Version" that shows that while Folds can still be seen as a pop (rock) musician, it seems that he views himself as a "pop" musician in the classic '40s sense. Through the alternative versions, the core strength of Folds' writing becomes apparent, in that much like Elton John or David Bowie, the songs can be stretched across multiple facades, but still retain their core identity while featuring new eccentricities.
Noticeably, while Folds does include his biggest rockers, he seems to favor the understated, quiet tunes to the energetic banging of Ben Folds Five. While Folds' selection of his softer side doesn't necessarily come across as a retcon, it does suggest that Folds is less interested in making easily digestible tunes in lieu for those that might be more personal, despite their lack of an easily recognizable hook. Still though, with so many songs poised to pull at one's heartstrings, every so often, Folds veers close to maudlin territory.
Most surprisingly, the new Ben Folds Five tune, "House," isn't so much a return to the bounciness of "Kate" or "Song for the Dumped" as it is a further expansion of Folds' current, more sophisticated statements. While the early BFF songs seemed to be as driven by Folds' snarky lyrics as the pounding rhythm section of Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge, here, Folds seems to be using his companions as pieces for furthering his own work.
The live disc exemplifies that in the crumbling music economy, Folds has kept afloat on the strength of his concerts. Just as his songs are malleable in studio form, live Folds strings from song to song, melting them into sparse versions or grandiose rockers as the occasion suggests. Deftly, Folds is able to maintain the seriousness of his songs while acknowledging that people come to live music to have a good time, and is able to weave the fine line between playful spontaneity without suggesting that his sings are merely meant for audience prodding.
The rarities disc will be the real treasure chest for long time fans. Earliest demos of BFF show the group just getting their footing while demos from '00 show Ben Folds just embarking on his solo career, working out how to provide for an audience with just himself and a piano, sans a backing band. Additionally, it rounds up a number of stray tracks, such as the download-only "Sleazy" and the MySpace version of "Such Great Heights," making collecting his expansive work just a little easier.
Across all the discs, Folds is able to form himself around numerous collaborators, highlighting both their respective skill. With Amanda Palmer, he's able to shade differences in approaches to grief between two mourning parents. With Regina Spektor, he's able to conjure the magnetic contrast between the sexes in a form rarely seen since the big band era. On the George Micahel cover "Careless Whisper," he's able to play the "straight man" to Rufus Wainwright's brokenhearted lamenting, once again illustrating Folds' ability to keep it silly and serious at the same time.
Most fascinating, however, is the likely unintended consequence of the recurring themes found throughout Folds' work when the 61 tracks are stacked next to each other, which are not quite so prevalent on his albums. It could be telling that through many of the songs handpicked by Folds, a great deal of them show him finding fault with other people. "You Don't Know Me" finds the subject nastily berating a former spouse for failing to address his needs. "Battle of Who Could Care Less" finds the subject dismissing an unnamed slacker. "Landed" again finds the song's central character admonishing a partner for failing to live up to his expectations. Yet across all 61 tracks, there doesn't seem to be a single song where the narrator exclaims, "Man, I blew it this time" or "it's all my fault."
Indeed, in sharp contrast to the lovey-dovey songs which are present on the disc, a vengeful creature seems to emerge from between the piano keys. It seems that with such a bilious thing lurking on some tracks, even those tracks which profess a purity, such as the ode to permanent love on "The Luckiest," one wonders just how much of that sentiment is transient or even deceptive. In a way, this gives the music an even more complex depth then would be found on a separate reading. Furthermore, it gives a new, and possibly troublesome insight into the real Ben Folds, who despite having written some timeless modern love song, has seen four marriages to date.
Even more troublesome, were we to apply the characters in the songs to Folds, it would mean with songs such as "You Don't Know Me" that he has specifically recorded attacks against the mother of two of his children. To separate these songs from the gentler ones would seem impossible.
Of course, there is always the maxim to "separate the art from the artist." Yet, that is difficult to do on a collection entitled The Best Imitation of Myself…
Random note: I find the cover to this greatest hits collection to be one of the most clever ever produced. The cover features pianos keys that are relatively orderly near Folds' hands, which gradually seem to lift up into the air, breaking apart and finally shattering into sharp shards. Is Folds' suggesting that his music comes to him in a form of chaos, and through his work, he molds it into something manageable? To the contrary, is he suggesting that his music starts out orderly only to break apart and become something dangerous to him? Perhaps he is suggesting that his music starts as he wishes only to have it hacked to bits once it is beyond his control. Clever!