Monday, August 15, 2011

Ben Folds 4: The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner

It’s always tough when a band that’s built its reputation on wackiness puts out material that’s anything less than hilarious. The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner certainly sounded like the Five all the way through, but its grandiose presentation suggested they were trying to tell some kind of dark, impenetrable story that flew right over our heads.
“Narcolepsy” opens with a fanfare lasting nearly a minute and a half, before paring back to the basic melody for the song to actually start. “Don’t Change Your Plans” allegedly had a lengthy intro of its own that was lopped off at the mixing stage. If that’s the case it would be great to hear what we’re missing, because the song that’s left is a sadly exquisite look at (again) the end of a relationship, complete with another Bacharachian bridge. By the time “Mess” comes in, the protagonist of this particular rock opera is coming off as somewhat of a jerk, despite the tasty electric piano bridge. “Magic”, written by drummer Darren Jessee, is a melancholy farewell to either an ex or the recently deceased, juxtaposed by the interior monologue in “Hospital Song”.
Things finally pick up with “Army”, an easy crowd favorite due to its snotty, cursing lyrics and do-it-yourself horn section. A reference to a redneck past provides a strange foreshadowing of the song of the same name, wherein more skewering of modern pop culture is shackled to a noisy, pounding arrangement. “Your Most Valuable Possession” sets an answering machine tape to a jazz backing. More reminiscences from an unreliable narrator make up “Regrets”, which rotates around the same changes until the three-minute mark where Wings meets the Flaming Lips. Speaking of odd influences, “Jane” owes a little something to Steely Dan before turning into another mellow Ben Folds Five song. The finale comes in “Lullabye”, a dream constructed so well you can almost see the credits rolling on the imaginary screen.
The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner is certainly a daring album, and it has its moments, but it falls off halfway on its journey to becoming something truly important. As the band’s last album, it wasn’t the best swan song either.

Ben Folds Five The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999)—3

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