This is a prime example of how wickedly biting Ben Folds can be with his songwriting. Story goes that when Ben Folds was with his now-ex-wife Frally Hynes, there was a couple with whom they were friends and collaborated with on the album Fear of Pop, Vol. 1. Fast forward to 2006, Ben and Frally divorce, the couple sides with Frally, and they write a song about the whole situation.
Brainwascht is BF’s response. He calls them out for using a song to comment on a personal relationship by using a song to comment on a personal relationship. But he does it so much better, commenting not only on the inappropriate use of his personal life in someone else’s song, but on their song itself. “There’s something wrong / being copied on a memo / in the form / of a bad country demo…” (Admittedly, their song does suck.) And most pointedly of all, he calls out their hypocrisy by mentioning how their own relationship ultimately failed like Ben and Frally’s. Moral of the story: Don’t emotionally tussle with Ben Folds, for he will cut you down with his razor sharp songwriting.
BF(F) absolutely rock. Their emotional range is unlike any other artist I’ve ever listened to. They have songs that make you want to break up and weep for weeks, and songs that make you want to jump and shout with good feeling. “Army” falls into the latter category. This is an outstanding anthem song about being young and not knowing what the hell you’re doing with your life and fighting the demons of your past and your family history and your broken down social relationships and accepting all of it and continuing in spite of it. Lyrics alone, it’s not completely as uplifting as I just described; while it’s got a thread of that carry-on nature, it’s also got a clear undercurrent of constantly being on the edge of giving up. But these lyrics on top of this song, and you’ve got an anthem on your hands. Powerful and fun and celebratory.
And as great as this song is on the record, it blasts into the stratosphere in concert. If you have not seen BF live, this song it worth the price of admission.
Even when he’s not writing about love-gone-cold, BF can write the most incisively sad song about life in general. He’s got this way of turning the most mundane detail of an everyday routine into the most emotionally raw commentary. “Still” is about change, which is something many people abhor, even if they don’t recognize it. At its core, life is about change, and BF calls that out in three heartachingly simple verses. First verse: relationship between lovers. Second verse: relationship between parent and child. Third verse: the internal perspective, his relationship with himself. Four lines each, and each hit the pressure points of why change is one of the very few things we can count on in life.
Musically, he’s got this fantastically grand sense of orchestration and knows exactly when to use it for biggest effect. He knows how to build tension throughout and how to get the most feeling out of the musical release of a tune. This song is such a simple song in terms of structure, but the way it builds complements the feeling of the song so incredibly well.
BF can write an anthem song like nobody. What’s interesting is the content of his anthems. This is a tune about a party he attended at his bandmates house where someone took some acid, climbed a tree, and when they came down (off the trip and the tree), they declared themselves a born-again Christian. At the root of this song, I think BF is criticising situational converts. Not even Christian-specific, just people who are not firmly attached to their own idea of themselves and who will change with the wind, or in this case, a crazy acid trip.
Another song that is a revelation to hear live. He splits the audience into three sections and orchestrates them singing the “aahh-aaaahhhh” part of the song. It is breathtaking to hear thousands of people singing this song and joining in. Again, worth the price of admission.
Clearly, Ben Folds has his songwriting niche. Six songs on this list are break-up songs. What makes this tune stand out is its speed. It’s got a pretty intense anger to it. This is easily the most frenetic song in this ten-song line up, and the chaotic feel perfectly fits the lyrical nature of the song. This is a tune about two people actively trying to emotionally wound the other, yet placing blame when things don’t go as they plan. This song sounds like a knock-down drag-out fight between two people too worn out by each other to care anymore. The way he just stomps on the chords of the chorus reflects this feeling perfectly, almost like he’s breaking up with the piano.
This is a weird entry on the list because I would attribute it almost more to Nick Hornby than Ben Folds. The song explores the connection between an artist and their work. If you’re a musician, and you have a massive hit that you wrote from a failed relationship, what happens to your brain and your memories of that relationship as you have to sing that song over and over as the years pass? It is generally well-known that Clapton wrote “Layla” about his love for the then-wife of his friend George Harrison (the Beatle). Can you imagine having to sing that song for 40 years thinking about that woman? Awful. What’s beautiful about the Folds/Hornby song is that not only is it an exploration of the connection between the artist and his hit song, but it’s written partially as the song itself. So you’re hearing a song about an artist and his song and the chorus is the song itself. A genius songwriting device.
What makes this break-up song different from the rest on this list is the upbeat feel of the music. It’s mainly positive with just a hint of tension. This song chronicles a series of moments when a person realizes their partner is basically crazy. The underpinning issue in the relationship is trust, and the hook so eloquently states a fundamental cornerstone of any functional relationship: “…if you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” The partner is neurotic and imaginative, which can be a very dangerous combination. The partner snoops to not only keep tabs on the singer, but also to learn more about him (which starts from a good place, but is such a misguided way to conduct a relationship). As much as I love this whole song, the last verse on its own is 90% of the reason it broke the Top 5 on this list. The whole song has a lot of good build, and it crescendos to this sensational finale that simultaneously illustrates why the singer can’t stay with their partner and communicates the hurt and frustration that can come from trying to make a relationship work while you’re being sabotaged by your partner. BF plays these fantastic triplets that increase the feeling of the pace and so perfectly deliver the urgent yet defeated emotion of the singer. The song increases its tension and build exactly as the singer is feeling little betrayals slowly percolate and grow into a relationship that is too strained under the weight of doubt and dishonesty that it can’t be sustained.
This song demonstrates the skill Ben Folds (or in this case, Nick Hornby) has in describing the falling out of a relationship in an unusual way. This song is about the facts that this guy knows about his girl, how he’s been listening for as long as they’ve been together and he knows all the right answers. He’d kill on The Newlywed Game. The problem lies in the fact that while all relationships need that sort of factual glue that can help hold things together (it won’t work if you don’t know what the other person likes or dislikes), in the end, every relationship needs Knowing on a deeper level. You’ve got to understand your partner, and the protagonist in this song doesn’t understand his.
What’s also present in this tune is the storyline structure. I feel this is one of the reasons Ben Folds and Nick Hornby found such a connection in each other; they are both natural storytellers. Ben Folds just does it in an unusual way, and much more pointedly than some musicians. This tune reads like a book, where the singer is arguing his side of the relationship, justifying it and saying “Look at how much I know. Of course this works!” It finishes with him realizing that the converse of his original argument is actually the truth. “Look how much I know, but of course that’s not enough and that’s why this doesn’t work.”
The first song I can ever remember hearing by BFF. That feedback distortion sound in the opening minute is like an aural time machine, it immediately throws me back to 15 years old and not exactly understanding what this song was about, but being hypnotized by the harmonies of their voices and the rhythmically stunted feel during the verses. I remember love the sing-along-ness of the chorus’ “bah-BAH-bah, bah-BAH-bah!” This was the first time I’d ever heard a bass guitar used so loudly, basically taking the place of where rhythm guitar usually sits in most pop music. This song was my first introduction to BF’s style of playing keys, and I was immediately hooked. He’s got this beautifully complex way of completely splitting his right and left hand parts, and the resulting sound is like there are two sets of keys rather than one cohesive piano part. And just the whole sound of this song is powerful. These three dudes had just drums, bass and keys, and they were able to make sounds I hadn’t ever heard before. They coaxed a fuller sound out of these three instruments than I previously thought possible.
At 15, I had no clue what BF was ever singing about, and this first song was no exception. Little did I know that it was the first of many BF-written tunes that would be about the confusion and ultimately unsatisfying nature of love. Thankfully, I wasn’t lucid enough as a human being to bother internalizing and processing these lyrics, or I might have stopped listening due to the inherently depressing content of 99% of BF’s music. I was just too distracted singing along with those damn fun bah-bah-bahs.
I wrote a big long piece about this song some years back. Here’s what I had to say about it. It’s #4 on that list.