Ben Folds Five's "Brick" was the sleeper hit of 1997. Climbing the charts months after the accompanying album's release, the song was a rarity: a hit which hooked an audience almost entirely based on lyrics. No flashy video, no trendy production, not even an especially catchy melody, yet Ben Folds' elliptical tale of a young woman's abortion kept tongues wagging and cash registers ringing. Suddenly, the scruffy trio from Chapel Hill, NC found itself with a platinum-selling album. In three different countries, no less.
For Folds, the success of "Brick" and Whatever And Ever Amen has been a mixed blessing. While pleased with the mainstream recognition (and swollen royalty checks), he's obviously feeling the pressures of fame.
"The schedule is pretty heavy," he says wearily. "It's more weight and responsibility than someone could imagine. It's not a lot different from finding yourself a CEO of a big company and being responsible for people. People want things from you, and vice versa. You have to guard your music, to keep it in a somewhat pure state. At this point, when we're in a good position, I could make a decision to spend my energy in any given number of ways, and make a lot of people a lot of money. And it might be really bad for me, and it might be really bad for my music. So that's the thing I'm dealing with now. Just like 'Damn, we can't use the music for that. Don't want to sell that fucking videotape. Don't want to do that compilation album. Don't want to play with these fucking bands on that fucking radio station.' It's a lot of that. It's just bad, is all it is. I didn't get into this to do shit that I'm embarrassed about."
While sorting through his offers, Folds rationed out a few choice tunes to soundtracks (Godzilla, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) and compilations (Lounge-A-Palooza, Burt Bacharach: One Amazing Night). Meanwhile, the group's former label assembled a rarities compilation called Naked Baby Photos, and Folds flexed his funk muscles with a mostly instrumental side project, the semi-pseudonymous Fear of Pop. Then, at last the time came to join bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee in the studio, to prepare the sequel to Whatever And Ever Amen. Of course, the band had a newly luxurious budget to dabble with, so they indulged themselves with four string players, a flugelhornist and the borrowed horn section of the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
"We approached putting this album together the way we had always wanted to," says Folds, "which was to have enough time, space and money to do the things that were in our heads, rather than be frustrated with things that we felt were half-baked. And I know this doesn't necessarily make the records better -- some of my favorite records are by people who had to make them very quickly. But we had to be satisfied, so we went into a nice studio with a nice room and a lot of pianos, and I wrote the songs in the studio. I'd bounce them off the guys, and the guys would play them differently or have a different interpretation of a song, and I would rewrite it. It was a very fluid process."
The finished album's title, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, is a bit indulgent as well. Borrowing a random name from a fake I.D. which Jessee forged during high school, the group didn't even realize that Messner was a famous Austrian mountaineer until production was already underway.
"It's just a title, really," Folds shrugs. "It could've been called just about anything. But the thing I do like about the title is that it implies there's a story. Like maybe you'd have a picture book with it, or maybe there would be dialogue between the songs. That's a distinctly different sort of album than just a collection of songs."
While the disc is hardly a concept album, it does have a unified sense of purpose. Though the music retains its trademark intimacy and live-in-the-basement ambience, Messner is clearly a product of heightened ambition, a bid to establish the boys as Serious Artists on a grand scale. It's not just the extra musicians -- it's more complex, theatrical compositions like "Narcolepsy," "Regrets," "Don't Change Your Plans" and "Mess." It's the tighter arrangements, and the de-emphasis on giddy group harmonies and explosive solos. The shift isn't necessarily welcome: brasher romps like "Army" and "Your Redneck Past" are still the highlights, while more elaborate tracks often teeter under the weight of their extravagances. There's also an unfortunate sense of creeping Billy Joelism, as Folds emerges as the unchallenged star, musing about uniquely personal experiences while his bandmates settle into subordinate, textural roles.
"You know, it's totally the opposite of that," he counters. "But that's what's so hard for Robert and Darren. I mean, they're honorable musicians. That is, we all try to be. And sometimes that means supporting, and sometimes that means putting a lot of energy into something you're not getting credit for. That may be going on with this record. I hate it for them if it's true, because they really had more to do with this record than anything we've even thought about doing before. This record really pushed the issue of 'When do you call something a co-write?' I had written the music and the lyrics, true, and that's what you put down in the songbook. But we all collaborated on the album as it came out. It's getting really close to the whole band writing the songs, although you still can't see it on paper."
Noticeably savvy about marketing, Folds is keenly observant of his audience, and ideally hopes that Reinhold Messner will please all varieties of the band's followers.
"You've got two completely polar-opposite sets of people who are fans of our music," he explains. "You've got people who are into the 'Brick' side of things, which has fuck-all to do with energy or club performances or 'hip.' Then you got the people who have been into us since the first day, who are into this more smart-ass, pound-it-out-in-the-club feel. Like we shouldn't have really been there, but we were. That kind of vibe. It's two totally different things, but they're both us. Somehow, it seems to me like this album sits a little more in the middle of that, rather than going back and forth between the two. But that may be wrong."
Simultaneously, he's well aware that the album may alienate a decent percentage of his fans. Sure, it's admirable to maintain creative integrity, but honestly, won't it upset him if the new disc sells weakly in comparison?
"Oh no, I don't care. I really don't. I'm totally fine if it does half. I mean, I know the business well enough to know that it probably will do better than that, just based on the time spent and the amount of asses that have been kissed on our behalf. But I'm also fine with half. I think it probably deserves to sell about half as many, because it doesn't have a hit. That's still a shitload of records. If it only sells a million records, who cares? Great!"
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