I was 14 when I saw Ben Folds Five for the first time. My cousin Marie and I somehow scalped tickets online and convinced her mom and dad to drive us two hours down to Atlanta, where the band was playing Georgia Tech’s homecoming concert at the school’s basketball arena. They dropped us off right in front of the building, like it was the first day of third grade. We had started high school three weeks earlier; neither of us had been to a concert without our parents before. I still remember what I was wearing — brown faux-suede clogs, mega-flared jeans and a blue button-down thrift store shirt patterned with little white tulips that I later lost to my sister in a nasty custody dispute. And I remember how I felt — totally untethered, unreasonably cool. At the end of the show our throats were raw from screaming along to every song.
The night hardly felt real even as it was unfolding, so it was all but destined to inflate to mythic proportions in my memory. When Ben Folds Five announced their split the next fall, I was distraught — they weren’t the first band I loved, but they were my first breakup. At first I felt cheated out of all the potential future records I thought they were yet to make, but once the charms of Folds’ almost-immediately-launched solo career began to wear thin, I was actually grateful the band had split. That made it easier to cordon off the Ben Folds Five discography as something I almost unequivocally loved, sealed off and forever unchanging, like a relic under glass. The fact that I’d seen them live came then to seem all the more precious and improbable, and my story of that first show settled into itself, impossible to overwrite or eclipse.
Now, after a dozen years apart, the band — Folds, plus drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge — has reunited. Their new record, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, came out last week, and a national tour is underway. I wrote more than a few all-caps Twitter posts and emails after the reunion was announced last year, but that excitement soon morphed into something else. I know the tendency of longtime fans to get all nervous and proprietary in advance of their once-favorite-band’s return, preemptively tempering their expectations, bracing themselves for disappointment, but in this case I had nothing to temper. I didn’t know what I wanted from the reunion. I wasn’t even sure I wanted one at all.
Of course, this was easy for me to say: I’d been one of a lucky few hundred to see Ben Folds Five when they got together for a one-off performance for a MySpace-sponsored web series in 2008, almost exactly ten years to the day after the first time I saw them. They played through their final record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and when came back for a long encore, they played “Eddie Walker,” an early b-side that was always one of my favorites, though I’d forgotten it was one of my favorites until that night. I started to cry, standing and crying in the crowd alone. I felt so much like I had that first time I saw them, giddy over my own slim chances. I left the theatre with a sense of closure I hadn’t even known I craved, like I was finally allowed to shut the lid on that whole decade of my life, my late adolescence, like I’d filled it the best I could.
The new record lacks much of the spit and spark of the old ones, but thematically it’s of a kind, fixated in that quiet way on the usually wonky but sometimes preposterously symmetrical parade of time. Satellites pass by, fathers die; “Tell me what I said I’d never do / Tell me what I said I’d never say / Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are okay,” Folds demands, screaming that last word, half-basking and half-wallowing in the supposed wisdom of middle-age. Folds wasn’t old when Ben Folds Five was first recording – 29 when their debut came out, 34 when the band broke up – but he wasn’t young, either. Back then his discomfort with the passage of time was shrouded in a goofy churlishness, but a certain malaise did ribbon its way through so many of those early songs. There’s a line in “Underground,” one of the band’s early pseudo-hits, that I used to eye like a distant signpost: “Now it’s been 10 years, I’m still wondering who to be.” That’s “10 years” as in “10 years since graduating from high school,” which at a certain point in my life struck me as an impossibly far-off milestone. It was different from the growing-up feeling I felt as a young teenager; it was a getting-old feeling, a “well, I’m here, what now?” feeling, and I found it delightfully alien, almost exotic.
Last week, though, it hit me: My own 10-year high school anniversary is next May. It hasn’t been that long at all — and yet it has been so, so long. The thought came to me, chilly and certain, as I stood in the crowd at the Tabernacle for the band’s first Atlanta show since the Georgia Tech gig in 1999. From my balcony seats, the mass of bodies on the flow below seemed populated by an above-average number of receding hairlines and hand-holding couples bearing the distinct air of people who’ve turned their children over to a 12-year-old with a vague grasp on CPR and 20 bucks for pizza. The crowd lacked the wiry energy I remembered of the Georgia Tech show and the explosive gratitude of the MySpace reunion; there was an overall sense of magic being chased down and recaptured, like a runaway labrador.
Something onstage seemed different, too. The band at first struck me as not being altogether tight, occasionally rushing or slipping slightly out of synch with one another, but then I began to wonder if they’d ever been tight at all. Lines that once struck me as profound suddenly seemed whisper-thin; songs I once found raucous and hilarious now excessive and immature. At 14, I’d never been angry enough at anyone to advise them to fuck themselves, so “Song for the Dumped” was a special kind of vicarious thrill. This time, though, I found myself siding with the poor woman standing there on her front porch watching the dude she just broke up with dissolve into a screaming, whining infant before her eyes — like yes, god, just take your fucking black t-shirt and get out of here, please.
I haven’t totally turned to stone — I spent most of the show in a kind of robotized bliss, feeling my mouth move along to words I didn’t know I still knew, grinning like a fool at everyone else grinning like fools. “Alice Childress,” which still comes closest to summing up anything like a religious view I might hold (“The world is full of ugly things that you can’t change / Pretend it’s not that way / That’s my idea of faith”), landed a big fat lump in my throat. The apology song the band improvised about cancelling an earlier Atlanta date was more fun than anything on the new record. And after a decade of feeling like I’d be happy to never hear it again, “Army” somehow won me back over. Folds has been conducting that hokey sing-along to the horn part for long enough now that without instruction or discussion or so much as a theatrical wave of his arm the whole crowd burst out into the “ba da da’s” at precisely the right time. Those big sticky-handed melodies are what hooked me to begin with; if nothing else, they’re what won’t let me get away even now.
But then came “Brick,” the band’s improbable 1998 hit, a song I knew was about Folds’ high school girlfriend having an abortion before I was entirely sure what an abortion was. The number of times I’ve heard the song over the past 15 years likely registers somewhere in the high hundred-thousands, but when they played it at the Tabernacle last week, it hit me as if for the first time. Something about the particular tenor of the crowd’s collective cheer as Folds leaned into the first few piano notes set me on edge. I eventually realized I was gripping the arms of my chair, my breathing shallow. I always knew it was a true story, or true for him at least, but never considered how this woman is still out there somewhere — this woman who when she was not much more than a little girl made a big, hard choice; this woman whose perhaps rawest moment was then folded neatly into a song that has since become almost inescapable, still shuffled through grocery store radio and Nineties Alternative Pandora stations — and all we know about her is that she’s a brick, she’s weighing him down, she’s holding him back. I used to think it was sweet he bought her flowers. I don’t think it’s sweet anymore. I am all of a sudden unable to hear the song as anything but an act of sad, cold, slow-moving public revenge in which she never will get a say.
When the show was over I was glad it was over. I didn’t stand around stomping for some second encore; the lights went up and the crowds began to file out, and I went with them. Walking away from the Tabernacle and into the night I again felt something closing behind me — something I had forced my way back into, a box of old trinkets and cards, little doodads I had once relished pulling out from time to time but which now struck me as gaudy and cheap, my familiarity with them some kind of indictment on my past and present self. I spent years handling these relics — this band, these songs — by the edges, keeping them separate and safe, fearing they’d grow brittle or draw mold or that some future mess would spill over and ruin them. But they were never relics at all. They’re as sturdy and stubborn as they’ve always been. They never changed. I did.
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