Ben Folds Five's 'The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner': 15 thoughts on 15 years

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Fifteen years ago today, Ben Folds Five released their third album, titled The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. It is by no means a masterpiece (though it is ultimately underrated), and had to have been considered a commercial disappointment after the group’s previous effort, 1997′s Whatever and Ever Amen, went Platinum on the back of the breakout single “Brick.”

But Reinhold Messner is also deeply wonderful in its strangeness, and it stands as one of the ballsier post-crossover albums a one-hit wonder ever produced. (And make no mistake: BFF is a one hit wonder—Folds had solo success after the band broke up, but their impact as a collective begins and ends with “Brick.”) To celebrate the album’s 15th anniversary (an off-kilter number, I acknowledge), here are 15 thoughts about an album that I literally think about every day.

1. As mentioned above, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was the first album crafted by Ben Folds Five after their breakout single “Brick” became an inescapable smash in the early part of 1998. That song is undoubtedly the best song ever written about getting an abortion, and despite the band’s whole gimmick being the grand piano Folds lugged around the country, “Brick” was actually written on guitar. According to Folds, he was having trouble finishing the song and found it to be far too earnest until drummer Darren Jesse wrote the chorus. The success of “Brick” landed the turtlenecked Folds in heavy rotation on MTV and sent Whatever and Ever Amen to million-sold status.

2. Whatever and Ever Amen must have been a weird listen for anybody who used “Brick” as the entry point, as while there are plenty of other heart-wrenching, knee-bucklingly beautiful ballads (namely “Smoke” and “Evaporated”), there are also a lot of songs that traffic in Folds’ particular sense of humor, including the album-opening, rage-filled “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and the potty-mouthed “Song For the Dumped.” In fact, in a feat of staggeringly inept sequencing, “Song For the Dumped” (with its chorus “Give me my money back, give me my money back/ You bitch”) comes right after “Brick” on the album. It’s a jarring, bizarre tonal shift that was only a problem when people still listened to albums in sequence.

3. When it came time to record The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the band hired producer Caleb Southern, who had also produced Whatever and Ever Amen. A platinum record could have bought them anybody, but they stuck to the guy they knew. The strange thing is that Reinhold sounds nothing like Whatever—it’s richer, deeper, and more varied sonically than its relatively lo-fi predecessor. Though Ben Folds Five probably didn’t spend all that much more this time around, Reinhold Messner sounds expensive in a way that Whatever didn’t.

4. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was released on April 27, 1999. I bought it the Tuesday it came out at the Record Express in Bloomfield, CT, along with Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik (which arrived in stores the same day). It debuted at number 35 on the Billboard 200, essentially making it dead on arrival.

5. That bummer of an opening was due primarily to the first single “Army,” which was not particularly good. In fact, like a lot of Reinhold Messner, it struggles with finding a tone that works for it, vacillating between Folds’ cheeky goofballery (a tone he would perfect on his solo album Rockin’ The Suburbs) and crippling ennui (the last verse has a the killer-sad couplet “My peers they criticize me/ And my ex-wives all despise me”). That pull between poles makes this a quintessential sophomore album, even though it was their third release. The question of what to do now that they’re a little bit big and have a lot more opportunity haunts every corner of Reinhold Messner, and especially “Army.” It does have a  great opening line, though: “Well I thought about the Army/ Dad said, ‘Son, you’re f—ing high.’”

6. Though Reinhold Messner is a real person (he was one of the greatest mountaineers in history, famous for making the first ever solo climb up Everest without the assistance of an oxygen tank), the title actually references the fake ID that drummer Darren Jessee used to have as a teen (he once noted that there were always a handful of Reinhold Messners trying to buy booze in the Houston area where he grew up). This was in the era before a Google search was the first step for anybody doing research, and in 1999, it’s entirely possible the real Messner’s Internet footprint wasn’t all that large. Still, it’s crazy to think that the legal department at Sony didn’t blanche at the idea of putting Messner’s name in the title. Nowadays, the vague potential over a lawsuit would have sent Folds scrambling to choose a new title.

7. The opening track is a shape-shifting piano-prog epic called “Narcolepsy.” In what may or may not be a meta-commentary, it opens with a very simple piano line that sounds an awful lot like the opening notes of “Brick.” Suddenly, a single Robert Sledge bass note crashes through the placid atmosphere like a meteor, and the song shifts into a swooping, string-kissed space-rock overture. It’s as grand a statement of purpose as any track one, announcing that the band you’ve grown to know is morphing into something bigger and weirder. There’s not really a chorus, but the climax—which finds Folds shouting “Save me/ Wake me up!” as the track falls apart around him—is thrillingly cathartic.

8. That level of catharsis on “Narcolepsy” is unusual for the rest of the album, as most of Reinhold Messner seems to be about an utter inability to break out of a cycle of depression. “Don’t Change Your Plans,” which follows “Narcolepsy,” has more of a pop-centric structure (though it does have a weird French horn interlude that is straight out of the Burt Bacharach playbook) and could have easily fit on Whatever and Ever Amen. But from its title on, “Don’t Change Your Plans” is dripping with bittersweet conflict, ending with Folds crooning “All I know’s I gotta be/ Where my heart says I oughta be/ It often makes no sense/ In fact, I never understand these things I feel/ I love you, goodbye.” That could be read as a resolute statement about following your dreams, but it comes across as the sad manifesto of a man who has lost control of his direction in life.

9. The lyrics to “Don’t Change Your Plans” also include the second reference to Folds moving to Los Angeles (he makes one in “Narcolepsy” as well), which suggests that there is a narrative thread running through The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In yet another nod to the album’s prog influences, there are a number of lyrical ideas and musical motifs that repeat throughout the record: “Army” has a lyric about Folds’ “redneck past,” and the very next song is “Your Redneck Past”; the end of “Army” resolves into the opening chord of “Regrets,” which doesn’t appear until a few songs later; “Mess” and “Regrets” also seem to be apologizing for some of the same things; death via hospital seems to link “Magic” and “Hospital Song.” There doesn’t appear to be an overarching narrative (at least not one with a traditionally cinematic structure), though it’s obviously meant to be consumed as an entire 40-minute experience rather than as individual tunes.

10. That’s not to say that there weren’t some missed opportunities for singles on Reinhold Messner. “Magic” is a knee-buckler of a ballad, featuring totally earned timpani bursts and one of Folds’ most lovely vocals. It is, however, a brutally earnest song about death—Folds is singing about somebody whose corporeal life has ended so she can become “the magic that holds the sky up from the ground.” Still, there are some Beatles-y “Sha la las” in there, providing just enough sugar to make everything go down smooth. For what it’s worth, “Mess” could have also been a dark horse single, as it has a jaunty bounce to it, though again it may have been derailed by its soul-confronting refrain: “I don’t believe in God, so I can’t be saved/ All alone as I’ve learned to be in this mess I have made.” That’s not exactly radio-friendly.

11. For all its weirdness, the strangest track on Reinhold Messner is “Your Most Valuable Possession.” The vocal, such as it is, was provided by Folds’ father via a half-asleep voicemail. He riffs about John Glenn, whether or not you can exercise in space, and what effect space travel has on the mind. The band crafts a sort of lounge jazz haze around him, and the result is bizarre and slightly creepy. I always pressed the “Skip” button whenever this track came up, though now I recognize it as a fascinating prelude to Folds’ work on William Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been.

12. “Jane” is a pretty good song, though like a lot of these songs it doesn’t have a chorus, and it’s not as good as the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Jane,” Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says,” Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” or Cypress Hill’s “I Love You Mary Jane.” It is better than Barenaked Ladies’ “Jane,” however, so that’s something.

13. The only time I ever saw Ben Folds Five in concert was on the tour for Reinhold Messner. The band played in the gymnasium at the University of Hartford, which was not a venue that usually booked concerts. I remember it was pretty sparsely attended, and they made a point of not playing “Brick.” When Folds sat behind his piano and said, “It’s time to play the hit,” the band busted out a cover of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” instead. I thought that was pretty punk rock at the time, though now I’d be pretty bummed that he denied the audience the thing that undoubtedly galvanized them. Still, Folds worked his ass off, especially on “Narcolepsy,” which featured an animated call-and-response section where he repeatedly shouted “Not tired!” and an ending that featured Folds tossing his piano stool against the keys over and over again to achieve maximum rhythmic punch (it was the piano rock equivalent of smashing a guitar). Most of the Reinhold Messner songs came off well but slightly incomplete, as they were missing the thickness provided by strings and such. The tunes that stuck with me were the ones from the band’s self-titled debut, including the awesomely jaunty trio of “Philosophy,” “Best Imitation of Myself,” and “Underground.”

14. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner ends with a song called “Lullaby,” which is an interesting thematic bookend to an album that opens with a song called “Narcolepsy.” It’s a sweet little song that actually acts as a lullaby and ends with the line “Goodnight, goodnight/ Let the moonlight take the lid off your dreams.” That was the end of Ben Folds Five as a band for a long time. They gave an outtake called “Leather Jacket” to No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees (the same album that featured Pearl Jam’s cover of “Last Kiss”), recorded a Steely Dan cover for the soundtrack to the forgettable Jim Carrey vehicle Me, Myself, and Irene, and that was it. Though they attempted to record a follow-up to Reinhold Messner in mid-2000, they announced their break-up in October. “We got along fine, but it had become a business. And that wasn’t how it started,” Folds told EW in 2001. “I had to ask, ”How much does this pay, and does it pay enough for me to bastardize my music?” and I said, ”Well, f— it” and threw in the towel.” Folds wasn’t gone for long, as his debut solo album Rockin’ The Suburbs arrived on September 11, 2001. In fact, I was listening to my burned copy of Rockin’ The Suburbs (specifically “Fred Jones Part 2″) on my DiscMan as I walked home to my NYU dorm and watched One World Trade Center disappear into nothing. The album has been hard to go back to for personal reasons, but it’s probably Folds’ finest work as a songwriter, though the sound is significantly more pop-friendly than Reinhold Messner.

15. Folds got the band back together in 2008 for a MySpace-sponsored full-album performance of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which even included Folds’ father reading the text of his voicemail for “Your Most Valuable Possession.” The recorded three new tracks for a career-spanning Folds retrospective, then dropped their fourth album The Sound of the Life of the Mind in 2012. Every time I press play on that album, I wish it was better than it actually is. It certainly sounds like a Ben Folds Five album, but it’s missing something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s because my attachment to the first wave of Ben Folds Five records are so thoroughly tied into my own life: Folds’ arc writing smart, funny, literate, sad alt-pop songs lined up almost exactly with my high school experience, where I was developing my personality as a smart, funny, literate, sad guy. Folds took bold chances with Reinhold Messner as I was trying to make bold choices about school, relationships, and the future. I can’t help but stand up for songs like “Your Redneck Past” and “Narcolepsy” because they are so deeply entwined with my own narrative. For me, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is the ultimate nostalgia album, as I objectively acknowledge its weaknesses but actively turn a blind eye to them because the songs mean so much in context. I heard The Sound of the Life of the Mind as a professionally objective adult, and I judge it as such. It’s not Folds’ fault that I don’t unfailingly adore his work any more, and being able to recognize that sad disconnect is a sign of growing up.

 

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