Ben Folds Five: Army
t was in 1999 when I realized the downfall of Ben Folds was prevised in the beloved Scriptures. Seven years of feast, seven years of famine; it's in Genesis! When I caught up to them the year before my realization, it was almost time. Ben Folds and his Five formed in 1994; in the half-decade to follow, they'd release three good-to-stunning LPs and a quote about being "punk rock for sissies."
But if they'd never compared themselves to punk, no one else would've. One was overwhelmingly more likely to hear invocations of the three J's: Elton John, Joe Jackson, and Billy Joel. I didn't really care about either. I cared about Chick-fil-A.
More specifically, Folds' reference to a stint behind the counter in "Army." Like, me, most of my friends did time amongst the pressure cookers of the Maconda Park Chick-fil-A; we filmed bumbling horror movies and smashed burnt-out fluorescent lights after closing. I played the song for everyone at some point, always pointing out the reference, always eliciting laughter. I kept the rest of the song, the laceration, the sting, to myself. I never had a mustache.
"Oh, I think I'll write a screenplay / Oh, think I'll take it to LA / Oh, think I'll get it done yesterday...aw shit"
This was the bridge. I’d always wanted to be a writer. Actual work was meager. Ouch. A lounge-style contrivance followed, as I joined the narrator (and the band) in whiling my time, waiting for some unknown event to redeem the aimlessness. I was not disappointed—never disappointed, cos Robert Sledge pulls up high on his bass and issues a cock-rock vamp of a solo. Over this, the band inserts applause, foreshadowing the third verse ("In this time of introspection/On the eve of my election…").
And this is where I lose it. As soon as Sledge retracts, a massive brass section commences a stereo duel. The left offers, the right echoes and counters. Sledge pulses away on one string, as this massive, mocking, grandiose fanfare pounds its way through the final verse. When performing the song live, Ben would occasionally join the horns, screaming "Yeah! Yeah! Get down"! Typing it doesn't acquit it well; this wasn't some faux-rap pose like he'd adopt on "Rockin' the Suburbs" or his cover "Bitches Ain't Shit" (embarassing): as Minor Threat would say, he was screaming at a wall. As soon as that brass blooms, that's the moment, something funny and self-subversive and bombastic, a statement that becomes the heart of a song and an album and a lament for a wandering career. Joe Jackson was never so compounded. Elton John had "Grey Seal," but still.
Sure enough, soon we saw signs that the harvest was flagging: Ben Folds Five broke up in 2000, in the middle of my senior year. Mr. Folds dropped his solo debut in 2001; while studded with the occasional surprise, it largely and lamentably proved true the Jackson/Joel comparisons. "Zak and Sara" was a firecracker, no doubt. I still reached for "Army." I still eat at Chick-fil-A too, but now the intercom pipes smooth jazz.