Woah, did I misjudge this album when I first heard it. I’ve never known an album take so long to burn into my psyche, but The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is a case where patience and occasional replays eventually pays off.
The last of the trio of Ben Folds Five studio albums from their original run, upon hearing it my initial reaction was that The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner tried just a little too hard to be mature and it seemed to take itself far too seriously. For too long I felt that The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner prioritised the orchestral arrangements at the expense of the rock and roll elements that were such a huge part of Ben Folds Five’s previous two albums. It seemed that the orchestra smothered everything, including Folds’ own piano work. Where previously any additional elements had tastefully backed up the piano, bass and drums, here I felt that they are pushed so far to the fore to the point where it was difficult to hear anything else.
It takes some time to come to terms with the fact that, having nailed down the piano-fronted rock and roll thing with Whatever and Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five had taken the decision to evolve their sound into something a little more sophisticated and considered, and the result was The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Where once I heard songs blighted by unnecessary horns and strings, now I feel that the album sounds like a progression towards a more sophisticated sound, which was sonically more deep-pile than the majority of material on their previous albums, while the lyrics were similarly mature. Home to a host of fine songs, particularly the opening duo of “Narcolepsy” and “Don’t Change Your Plans”, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner signposts the lyrical concerns that Folds would explore in his subsequent solo career. While there would be callbacks to their earlier sound by way of “Army” and “Your Redneck Past”, both of which are superb, the rest of the album sees a grown up and more considered Ben Folds Five.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is perhaps a little too easy to dismiss out of hand, particularly if you enjoy the energy level of their first two albums. While it may not be the best immediate and accessible Ben Folds Five album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is just as enduring as any of their other studio albums, and it really doesn’t sound its 20 years. As their most orchestral album, it’s also their most unique album when you consider their collective output, and you do have to wonder where else there was for them to go once they had released it. Add this to the fact that it failed to meet commercial expectations the it was released, and it’s perhaps little wonder that the trio went their separate ways for a while.