Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever Amen (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Ben Folds Five

Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)

550 Music

                If you’re a Ben Folds fan, or just listen to his music in passing, this is likely the release you remember him for. While his hardcore fans could debate all day between any of the first three Ben Folds Five albums, his first two solo efforts, or what the hell even Fear of Pop Vol. 1 being his best release. This is undoubtedly the album that most people had in their collection at one point. For one reason, and one reason only, the song “Brick” this was inescapable for most the summer of 1997. It was all over radio, and for good reason. The song had cross culture appeal, everyone from music nerds, to Dawson’s Creek fans, and hell even my parents enjoyed the song. It would be years later, on the Ben Folds Live release, when I found out the song was actually about the feeling surrounding his girlfriend having to get an abortion. While it would be hard to say it is one the strongest piano based pop songs ever, it certainly proved that 90’s pop music, pre-boy band takeover of TRL, had the ability to not eschew meaningful lyrics in an effort to have a song land on the charts.

With all that said, “Brick” was not the only song on this release. But, it would let the casual listener get a taste of what Ben Folds was capable of as songwriter who could drift seamlessly between lyrics that were meaningful and tongue in cheek. All the while, churning out some of the best alternative music of the 90’s using only piano, bass, drums, and vocal. These all came together to create what the band referred to as “punk rock for sissies.”

Nowhere is Ben Folds’ propensity for tongue and cheek lyrics more apparent, than on opener “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” which recounts a then eleven year old Ben Folds’ experiences at school. The lyrics focus, humorously, on his redemption from being picked on in school. While this topic had been tackled numerous times before, and would be afterwards. It may prove to be the only song of its time that could still find a place on the radio two years later, in a post Columbine High School world. Perhaps, that was the genius of Ben Folds when compared to his more anger inspired contemporaries his redemption was not only one that didn’t involve violence. But, it was also a thought anyone who has ever been picked on one day has had. Which was simply, “kiss my ass.”

Perhaps the closest the band ever came to outright anger, was “Song for the Dumped” the lyrics of which were penned by drummer Darren Jessee. While the 90s’ were awash with emo bands trying to perfectly articulate the feelings you have when your significant other decides you should be quite as significant anymore. At the end of the day, they all just found more complicated was to say what this song did ever so simply, which was “fuck you too.” No, it’s not graceful, deep, or any of those things a lot of bands stove for in the alternative music scene of that era. But, it’s also the starting point that every person has in that situation.

Not every song on the album was upbeat though, which was the strength of Ben Folds, the songwriter, and this band. They could write a great upbeat pop song, but they also had the musical chops to slow things down and write heartfelt downtempo numbers as well. Songs like “Smoke”, “Evaporated”, and the previously mentioned “Brick.” With the exception of “Brick,” which took on a life of its own, these were the songs that people would listen to alone. These were the songs for those quiet moments before bed, and they were what endeared him to me and to millions of other fans. We could sing his upbeat numbers with our friends, because that was, publicly, who we were the smartass with the quick wit and snappy comebacks. Privately though the quiet songs and the slower number were the ones that stuck with us. In short, “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” symbolized everything we wanted to be or wanted people to think we were and songs like “Smoke” were about the people we were when we were by ourselves.

For years, I’ve defended the next studio album by Ben Folds Five, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, as their best. A friend of mine regularly told me I was wrong about this, that the album was overwrought with concept and the looseness of their earlier work wasn’t there. After revisiting this album several times in the past few weeks, I think this is a better album. The follow up is a great album, conceptually speaking, but this album speaks to me now as much at 31 as it did the first time I heard it a couple years after it came out. While a strong case could also be made for their debut being better than this, I think this was the album where the musicianship and songwriting came together. Before, like with so many bands, they were faced with figuring out how to operate with a hit song in their discography.