Ben Folds turned 40 on September 12th and has contributed an abnormal amount to the world of music. Deciding the order of these ten songs, or even what songs would be in the ten, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Which means two things: First, you will probably disagree with parts, if not all, of this list. Second, I should probably get out more.
10) Song for the Dumped- Because for all of the times that Ben Folds has articulated himself brilliantly and poetically, this song is his chance to be a normal guy. No fancy imagery, just an embittered ex-friend being an embittered ex-boyfriend… who plays an excellent honky-tonk piano.
9) Steven’s Last Night in Town- Ben Folds has versatility coming out of his wazoo and this song is the proof.
8) Landed- During an interview, Ben Folds said that this song was written for a friend who had just recently parted ways with an over-bearing girlfriend. This girl had been so over-bearing, in fact, that Ben envisioned his friend returning from a distant planet and, of course, needing a ride home from the airport. It’s an interesting picture, to be sure. And the piano is… well, it’s Ben Folds.
7) Bastard- Well written lyrics and that glorious, nostalgic fuzz-bass always make for a good song. But, I still miss the raw, albeit slightly immature sound of “Whatever and Ever Amen.” Sometimes it just feels like, as Ben Folds grows and matures as an artist (which I understand is a vital and unavoidable side-effect to life) his lyrics become just a little bit preachy whereas they used to be confessionals. He’s gone from sins to sermons in just a few simple chord changes.
6) Smoke- Relationship : Book :: Break-up : Book-burning. Brilliant, original metaphors and that is just about the song in a nutshell.
5) Last Polka (Live)- I’ve thought for a long time about how best to describe this piano line to you and heres what I’ve got: The bastard-child of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Scott Joplin (with a tiny bit of The Doobie Brothers thrown in there.) The raw piano really takes precedence over the vocals here, show-casing what Ben is really capable of but also complimenting the lyrical depiction of a crumbling relationship. Only one line of the lyrics,though, really stands out over the roaring bass. “The cruelest lies are often told without a word/ the kindest truths are often spoken, never heard.”
4) Best Imitation of Myself- This is yet another example of Mr. Folds’ ability to express something everyone feels in a totally new way. We’ve all tried to act like different people to please someone else but how many of us have actually stopped and said, “I feel like a quote out of context,” or anything remotely coherent? I have to admit, though, it did take me a while to fully understand what it means to do an imitation of oneself. But, then again, I was about ten when I first heard this song. It’s import still stands.
3) Sentimental Guy- There’s a regretful sarcasm throughout the entirety of “Sentimental Guy” that one can’t help but identify with. The lyrics and even the playful, Randy Newman style piano, seem to just shrug and say “Oh well.” Unfortunately, the piano is just too Randy Newman style for me. After all of the amazing lines that we’ve seen Ben Folds tear out on his keys, this one just doesn’t feel like it keeps up with the ideas and the images portrayed in the vocals. The vocals, however, are some of my favorite of Folds’. Maybe it’s not so much the ability to identify with the attitude of the song as it is the desire to be able to identify with it. How often have you encountered something that you know should be changed, that you know should have run a difference course, and how often have you wished that you just didn’t care?
This song isn’t simply about indifference, though. It’s about learned indifference. It’s about caring so much, for so long that you just get tired of it and stop. Once again, Folds manages to express all of that much better than the average person despite the fact that they have most likely experienced it.
2) Mess- And the award for most insightful lamentations goes to Ben Folds for his work in “Mess.” There’s really not much I can say about this song that the song doesn’t say for itself. I’ve listened to it probably three dozens times so far and each time all I can think is “This is so good.”
There is one thing I would like to call attention to, though. That one thing is as follows: How the condition of his house, the filth and the clutter and the blocked-off rooms, reflects the state of his own psyche. I really have no comment on this, it’s just worth paying special attention to. Especially if you have a weak spot for Dickensian characters. No matter what, this song is brilliant and totally stand-alone. Listen to it.
1) Fred Jones Part II- The piano starts off hesitantly and simply. We’re told the story of Fred Jones as he’s being fired from a job he has held for some 25 years. A cello mourns in the background as Fred’s story becomes more and more sullen. The only other person we ever see with Mr. Jones is the nameless young man sent to escort him out of the building. He goes home alone and without a fuss. But, by this point, you want him to make a fuss. You like him, you pity him. We met him four years back in “Cigarette” and learned about the sick wife whom he tended to night and day. For all we know his wife has long since passed. But Fred? Fred just keeps on going. Even if he is alone, he can respect himself and knows that, in the end, he did his best. With the last line we see a glimmer of internalized defiance and our hopes swell with the music as we are told that “he is forgotten but not yet gone.” Every time I hear this song, I want to send Fred Jones my life savings.
“Fred Jones Part II” is unquestionably my favorite Ben Folds song. Theres a perfect balance between the instrumentals and the vocals, with neither one dominating the other. The two move at the same time and tell the same story. If you were to listen to the piano and the cello alone, you would see much the same images. Or, at least, you would feel the same images. Then, to make it even better, the lyrics narrate a story to you that supplements the one your mind has already built. This piece really proves the mastery Ben Folds has over not just his part, not just the words and the piano, but over the entire composition and arrangement of the music. (Side note: John McCrea of Cake does guest vocals on the album “Ben Folds Live.” There’s no cello, but it’s still worth a listen.)