"What I've kept with me, And what I've thrown away, Don't know where the hell I've ended up."
Popular opinion would have us believe that most acts find their second albums much more problematic than their debuts. In some ways this is understandable as the material on debuts is generally years in the making, having been honed and perfected in the years of hard gigging and demo recordings that inevitably happen before band gets signed. Material for second albums is more often than not done on the hoof, either on the road as the act promotes their seemingly overnight-success debut, or under the threat of being dropped by the label because the debut wasn’t an overnight-success.
Of course, things very rarely follow such a satisfyingly uniform pattern, indeed if it did, how did albums like With The Beatles, Led Zeppelin II, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Leggy Mambo build upon the success of their predecessors?
While the American music scene was still finding its moody post-grunge way and here in the UK the Britpop party was in full swing, the piano based rock of Ben Folds, Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge offered a refreshing alternative, with Whatever and Ever Amen striking a chord with an audience that realised that rock and roll didn’t have to always be so guitar-centric. Oh, and it had smart lyrics too, so that didn’t hurt much either.
Whatever and Ever Amen unarguably built upon the success of Ben Folds Five’s eponymous debut. The song writing is steps up a gear, the production is noticeably more lush (major label money having played its part) and the arrangements are a little less sparse. The band had significantly tightened up too, with Jesse’s fuzz-bass getting regular invigorating workouts throughout the album and Sledge’s playing making a case for him to be considered as one of the great under appreciated drummers of the era. Inevitably though, it’s Fold’s piano playing which most will focus on, as it paints a tonally different aural image from the guitar-centric alternative rockers that were their peers, however it’s the ensemble playing of the three band members that make the album one of the most satisfying of the 90s.
If there is one criticism that some have tried to level at Whatever and Ever Amen, it’s that some of the song writing is perhaps a little emotionally immature in places. Two of the album’s highlights, opener “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song for the Dumped”, are refreshingly bitter blasts of anger aimed at former classmates and a recently soured relationship respectively. Sure, if you’re happily settled in your mid-to-late 30s and you’re hearing both songs for the first time, you may struggle to relate to them, however if, like me, you heard them at a point in your life where both the themes and the delivery of the songs resonated with you, you can’t fail to appreciate them as works of angry, angry genius.
Of course Whatever and Ever Amen isn’t just about Folds settling old scores. It’s chock full of songs which cannot fail to pluck at your heart strings, with “Cigarette” and “Missing the War” counterbalancing the slightly narky piano-rock of a song like “The Battle of Who Could Care Less”. Elsewhere, the album just barrels along delivering piano pop greatness in the shape of “Kate”, “Fair” and “Stephen’s Last Night in Town” and “Brick” is just a devastating tune. Folds has a way of tapping into some very primal emotions, both as a solo writer, and with his lyrical collaborations with Dareen Jesse and his former partner Anna Goodman. Sometimes those emotions are sophisticated and nuanced, and sometimes they’re just coming out of being raw, angry and hurt. Both are perfectly legitimate emotions, but having a songwriter than can balance the two extremes and every point in-between, is something very special indeed.
Sure, nothing on this album was pushing the envelope in terms of exploring the fringes of musical or lyrical experimentalism. The thing is, it probably wasn’t meant to, as Whatever and Ever Amen was just a hugely satisfying album of piano rock and pop songs, which is something that precious few other acts were doing at the time, resulting in Ben Folds Five standing out from the crowd and gaining their place in the hearts of those of us who appreciate smart lyrics paired with great tunes.