I expected a lot out of the second album from Ben Folds Five, Whatever And Ever Amen, released February 5, 1997. I’d been a huge fan of their self-titled debut from 1995 and was champing at the bit to hear more from the promising young trio. Whatever… showed a remarkable amount of growth and maturation since the first record. At first, I didn’t know what to make of that.
I remember commenting to a friend, “There’s a lot of ‘studio noise’ on this record, incidental stuff between songs, noises in the middle of songs…” I found out later they didn’t even use a proper studio, that the album was all recorded in a two-bedroom house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Another thing I didn’t dig at first was the use of additional instruments and overdubbing. While the debut had the sound of one take, straight-to-tape, original trio, piano-bass-drums, no overdubs, no retakes, no touch ups, raw youth energy, Whatever… clearly took a different approach on some tracks.
The second album came off a lot more cynical, too. There are times when Ben Folds‘s lyrics could be Elvis Costello feeling particularly bitter or vindictive. The opening cut, “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” is basically a 30 year old man giving the old vafancullo to the recalled bullies and perceived slights he suffered in second grade. It’s hilarious and upbeat, but it’s also petty and mean-spirited. It’s a seven year-old’s cautionary tale, a musical version of Eddie Murphy‘s “Effrom” story.
The album is best known for the dark, depressing “Brick,” which reached number 11 on the Billboard charts and turned into an unexpected breakthrough hit for the band. It’s a brutally honest recollection of a high school tribulation that’s all the more heartbreaking when you know the story behind it (which, incidentally, is spelled out pretty clearly in the song lyrics but a surprising number of people – myself included – missed it for a long time, caught up in the melody and the chorus). Then there’s “Smoke,” an excellent, melancholy reflection on burning one’s diary, hoping to make all the pain recorded therein dissipate and disappear.
This isn’t to give the impression that the whole album is backward-looking misery. It’s not by a long shot. The upbeat “Kate” is a song in praise of someone who is, in the narrator’s eyes, simply awesome, complete with Snow White cartoon imagery: “She plays Wipe Out on the drums / the squirrels and the birds come / gather ’round and sing the guitar…” “Steven’s Last Night In Town” is funny, written about Folds’s friend, record producer Steven Short. It’s got violins and a clarinet and talks about how his friend, “lost points with the ladies for saying he couldn’t love a woman with cellulite…” It also features a phenomenal big-band swing performance by drummer Darren Jessee that is perfectly out of place on the album but works within the framework of the song.
And for all my prior bitching about hidden tracks (which will resume after this accolade), I have to give credit to Ben Folds for offering up something worthwhile in what had already become a tired trope by 1997: the end of the final track, “Evaporated” fades out at four-and-a-half minutes, followed by a minute of silence before one of the bands’ roadies, in the midst of a mic check, yells, “Look man, I got your hidden track right here, pal! Right here! Listen: Ben Folds is a fucking asshole!” to a smattering of laughter from the audience.
This is a solid sophomore effort, containing some amazing imagery and storytelling from a songwriter feeling more comfortable and confident in his craft. It does deal heavily with loss and failed love, but it does so in novel ways, entire short stories contained in single verses…
He shouted out his last word
And he stumbled through the yard
And she shattered her last china plate
And spun off in the car
When he lunged onto the hood
She stopped to tell him she’d been wrong
He was thrown head over heels
Into the traffic coming on
…and as dismal as some of those short stories are, they’re presented with a wink and a nod in most cases, a bit of tongue in cheek letting us know that he knows that we know he’s playing it all with a caustic sense of humor and he’s gonna keep doing it that way. (In “Song For The Dumped,” his biggest concern as his relationship ends is getting his t-shirt back.) Sure, it’s smug and it’s calculated, but it brings the audience inside the performers’ private jokes and creates a connection with the characters in the stories. And then the rare moments of stripped-bare emotional honesty like “Brick” and “Cigarette” carry that much more weight when you realize, hey, this guy isn’t just playing everyone’s tragedies for laughs.
The band never again hit the commercial highs they did with Whatever… though Ben Folds has continued to record with both the trio, as a solo artist, and with other acts. In the meantime, this album still stands tall as a portrait of the artist in transition, reviewing his past and moving on – at least until it comes time to record the next album.