1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 49

The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner, by Ben Folds Five
Suggetsed by Nick Hall

“The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner?!” I mumbled to myself. “Great. Another bloody Concept Album.”

I needn’t have worried. A quick Google reveals that the title is from an in-joke of the band, referencing a name someone used on a fake ID as a teenager. When informed of the existence of the real Reinhold Messner (Italian mountaineer who made the first solo ascent of Everest, SUCK IT Brian Blessed!), apparently there was much mirth all round. So, no concepts for me today… just songs.

Ben Folds Five are a trio. That is hilarious. Or at least, it was hilarious when Douglas Adams did it with the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. For a band, it’s very Be Sharps, a name that’s witty at first but that seems less funny each time you hear it. I guess BFF never claim to be salient wits, and although I’ve never heard any songs by Douglas Adams I’m sure they’d be Vogon-poetry-level wretched. Staying in your wheelhouse can be a blessing.

The musical wheelhouse of Ben Folds Five? Definitely a blessing.

There is something delightful about this eclectic suite of piano-driven pop-rock songs. It’s not the instrumental talent, though there’s talent in abundance. It’s not the vocals, which are nice enough but hardly groundbreaking. It’s not even the scope, which encompasses a host of singular styles that mesh themselves into a glorious whole.

I think it’s the feeling of precision.

Each song feels crafted, guided by a loving hand. The lyrics seem both personal and intelligent, but above all considered. Not a note feels out of place, nor a casual phrase or offhand beat.

Unfortunately, such delicate refinery can appear smug, and there’s a danger of that. Nothing concrete, just a brief flirtation, a knowing smirk in the periphery. This attitude can be forgiven if accompanied by a thimble of self-awareness, which is something that I remind myself when I re-read these reviews and wince at shameful instances of turgid floridity. I hope Ben Folds is similarly perspicacious. There’s nowt wrong with clever, even if it’s too clever by half.

Stylistically, there’s a lot going on in this album. There are notes of The Beatles, and subsequently their erstwhile imitators, like Jellyfish. The vocals sometimes touch on the Beach Boys, and there’s a significant feel of They Might Be Giants here too. All these bands are bands I love, so it’s no surprise that I like this album.

My favourite song is Army, although the slower and dreamier Magic gets a vigorous nod too. The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner gets 8/10, solidly scaling my musical mountain without the need of supplementary oxygen.

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