Ben Folds has a lot to take care of before settling into adulthood. He’s got scores to settle, grudges to hold, items to get back, women to marry then divorce. Peter Pan-types like Folds have this problem: They get caught-up applying adolescent solutions to adult problems. Next thing they know, they’re 40.
With “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” Folds, who plays piano and sings lead in his Ben Folds Five trio, announces that even if he hasn’t quite given up on the tics of youth (see “Your Redneck Past”), he’s at least figuring out that life itself is a bigger bitch than his ex-girlfriend. The evidence transcends subject matter, even if there are more than a few mature songs: In “Don’t Change Your Plans” Folds somewhat selflessly sets a lover free; “Hospital Song” is the bummer you’d expect.
Folds’ real growth on “Messner” is musical. He’s no longer interested, as he once was, in proving to punk snobs that a piano man can front a power trio. “Narcolepsy,” the opening track on “Messner,” is the most outrageous Folds tune to date. It’s a five-minute-plus opus worthy of Queen, replete with strings, drums that tumble in like flash floods and enough musical costume changes to suggest that the band wrote the song in movements.
Nothing else on the record is as audacious as “Narcolepsy,” but the song does set the tone for the rest of the album. Folds spent the bulk of his first two records, “Ben Folds Five” (1995) and “Whatever & Ever Amen” (1997), turning gripes into melodic, guitar-free stomps; on “Messner,” he mixes up the formula. Arty rhythm shifts slow the headlong surge of “Army” before it’s recharged by a brass section. On “Don’t Change Your Plans,” Folds throws melodies against a suite of Bacharach strings. “Regrets,” which starts, “I thought about sitting on the floor in second grade,” sounds like a Steely Dan tune grafted onto an outtake from “The Wall.”
“Messner’s” sundry celebrations of ’70s-era radio cheese aren’t terribly surprising, given that Ben Folds Five prefer to poke fun at hipsters rather than court their attention. Folds isn’t interested in irony, and his band marches through these flamboyant arrangements with nary an apology or a wink. The singer’s worries are the same as they were two long albums ago; it’s the music that Folds uses to air those worries that’s changed. Adulthood can’t be far off.