Ben Folds Five
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 1999, Volume 6, #12
Written by John Metzger
With just two albums and a collection of outtakes under its belt, Ben Folds Five already has begun to shift direction. The group's latest disc The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is a more mature effort, tackling the topics of growing up as well as the death and dying of both relationships and people. The band consistently has been a piano-based outfit, but never has it fared quite so prevalently as on this album. Instead of taking out his anger on his keyboard, Folds builds gorgeous piano accompaniments around his typically infectious melodies. In addition, Robert Sledge's bass is utilized more traditionally rather than in the fuzzed-out glory it was on albums past, and Darren Jessee, who has always had a tremendous gift for painting the beat, gets more of an opportunity to do just that.
The result is that The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is much more of a pop-oriented effort than an indie-rock outing. The songs are given lush orchestrations, incorporating strings and a horn section to build majestic, and often grand arrangements. The musical scores borrow from the likes of Brian Wilson (Your Redneck Past), John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Army), Burt Bacharach (Don't Change Your Plans), Elton John (Lullabye), and Al Stewart (Mess).
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is presented as a concept album, which was built around the name of a famous mountaineer that Ben Folds Five once utilized on fake IDs in order to sneak into bars in Charlotte, North Carolina. Several of the songs do indeed seem to fit together (Hospital Song, Army, Your Redneck Past, Your Most Valuable Possession, and Regrets), forming a suite of sorts, but aside from this, the sum totality of the album lacks a definitive connection.
The members of Ben Folds Five have long been known for their prankster-like approach to interviews, often answering questions with fictional tales. Perhaps this album is their grandest prank to date -- challenging those who dare to read more into the album than is truly there. Yet, underneath all their silliness, there is still some sense of truth and insight into who Folds (as principal lyricist) is, and he seems to be revealing a little bit more of himself with each album he releases. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner may not be quite as daring as the band's breakthrough Whatever and Ever Amen. Yet, it does find the group moving into some new and interesting directions that should keep it in the limelight for many years to come.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box