February 10, 2017 by Matthew Coakley
I remember the day when “Whatever and Ever Amen” was released, 20 years ago this week, back in 1997. I was four months old, kicking and screaming for my mom to run out and buy me the new Ben Folds Five CD.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t exactly cognizant at the time of its release — nevertheless, “Whatever and Ever Amen” remains one of my all-time favorite albums. It’s flawless from front to back and it holds a very special place in my heart.
Ben Folds Five, as you may already know, does not have five members. Rather, they have always been a trio: Ben Folds himself on piano and vocals, Robert Sledge on the bass guitar and Darren Jessee on the drums. They went with “Five” in the name simply because they liked the way it sounded.
I think Ben Folds Five fans would unanimously agree that “Whatever and Ever Amen” is their magnum opus. Their 1995 self-titled debut was full of bright, energetic piano rock songs that Ben Folds himself referred to as “punk rock for sissies” (a reaction to all the angsty music during the ’90s), but they really came into their own with “Whatever.” The songwriting had matured, the arrangements were more textured and the overall production was much better.
They received a ton of airplay with one of the singles, “Brick,” a ballad reflecting upon Folds’ experience going with his high school girlfriend to get an abortion. I think that due to massive success of “Brick,” the rest of the album often gets overshadowed — I myself was a fan of “Brick” long before I knew who Ben Folds Five were. When I did finally listen to “Whatever,” it changed everything for me.
Now, 20 years since the album’s release, it still resonates. Ben Folds Five have such a unique sound and “Whatever and Ever Amen” is them at their best.
One of the best things about “Whatever” is its production. The album sounds intimate and personal; it harnesses a lot of raw energy, far from being overproduced. The peculiar nature in which the album was recorded is what gives it such a unique sonic character.
Folds rented out a small house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (not far from where the three grew up) and set everything up in a bedroom. They played most tracks together live, with just a few microphones set up around the room. You wouldn’t expect recording in a house to have a huge impact but it completely shapes the sound of the record. People don’t realize that the space in which something is recorded is like an instrument in and of itself.
The album’s lo-fi tendencies don’t detract from the purity of the tracks but rather sprinkle them with character — the spoken interjections in between tracks, the false start on “Kate,” the telephone ringing in the middle of “Steven’s Last Night in Town” followed by Sledge’s laughing fit. It’s the little things on this record that evoke some of the strongest emotional responses; the crickets heard in the background of the somber and succinct ballad “Cigarette,” for example, make a perfect complement to the soft piano and Folds’ hushed vocals.
From the light and bouncy bangers such as “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” “Song for the Dumped” and “Steven’s Last Night in Town” to the elegant, more reflective numbers such as “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” “Smoke” and “Missing the War,” Ben Folds Five create a highly personal yet universally relatable album. In terms of overall sound, lyrical references and attitude, the album is distinctly ’90s, but through the common themes and unique style, “Whatever and Ever Amen” will remain timeless.
The spectrum of lyrical content is wide. What Folds does best as a lyricist is that he uses his own specific life experiences to craft vivid and relatable stories. From songs about wide-eyed infatuation (“Kate”), to telling someone off (“One Angry Dwarf,” “Song for the Dumped,” “Steven’s Last Night in Town”), to reflecting personal plights (“Smoke,” “Evaporated,” “Brick”), the album isn’t so much a window into his life, as much as it is a doorway into the listener’s own past experiences.
“Whatever” came to me at a transitional period in my life — right at the end of junior year of high school. I was applying to colleges, my high school girlfriend and I had just broken up, I was listening to a lot of sad sack music (see: Radiohead).
My band instructor introduced me to Ben Folds Five and lent me “Whatever” on CD. I burned it into my computer and was immediately captivated. I spent the whole summer trying to figure out each song on piano by ear. Ben Folds afforded me a newfound love for the piano, an instrument I’d learned to play when I was six years old, but hadn’t been playing much anymore. His music became a huge inspiration for me as a musician as well as on a personal level.
I obviously can’t speak for the cultural impact of this album at the time, if there was any, but it’s clear even today that Ben Folds Five have a large and devoted cult following. I doubt they would have accumulated so many fans if it wasn’t for this masterpiece of a record.
Their 1999 follow-up “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” was an odd, perhaps overly-ambitious, jazz-influenced album that had some gems but overall fell flat. “Whatever and Ever Amen,” on the other hand, is timeless and will surely go down as one of the greatest alternative albums of the ’90s. It certainly ranks in my personal Top 5 of All Time.
When I think about albums that changed my life, “Whatever and Ever Amen” comes to mind, right after Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” I’m sure Ben Folds Five and “Whatever and Ever Amen” will continue to inspire new listeners as well as old fans for many more years to come.