Someone – I can’t remember who, but I suspect it may have been the girlfriend I had when Ben Folds Five, the debut album, came out – once called “Underground” a song that sounded like it should’ve been done by the Muppets, and I completely understand where they’re coming from; there’s a… jauntiness, might be a good way of putting it, or a particular perkiness to the song that feels like it should be coming from a bunch of felt-covered creatures who can open their mouths to 90 degree angles. To be honest, that’s one of the selling points of the song for me, this unstoppable enthusiasm and energy that just bowls you over and dares you not to want to sing along, even before you’ve realized that the lyrics are making fun of what, even in the late ’90s when this song came out, was called “alternative culture” (My favorite lyric may be the “It’s industrial!/So work it underground” couplet, which is punctuated by one weak metal clink and sung in high harmonies, so amazingly non-industrial and at odds with the idea of what that music wanted to be).
Considering BF5 was always dominated by the eponymous Mr. Folds – and somewhat understandably; his name was in the band’s (joke) name, and he wrote or co-wrote almost all of their material, as well as being lead singer and having his piano right up there in the mix at all times – it’s worth singing the praises of Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse, the other members of the band. They’re the ones who make “Underground” work, in a weird way; not just in their harmony/backing vocals, but with the bass and drums, grounding the song and giving the piano some weight as well as something to play off’ve. There are live versions from Ben Folds’ solo career of this song, and it’s not just that something’s missing, it’s that everything feels missing; for all the dazzle of Folds’ performance – and it is, genuinely dazzling; this was the band’s first single, and it sounded so fresh and different on the radio because it was the mid-90s! Who sounded like that then? – the song belongs to Sledge and Jesse; they may not have provided all of the Muppet-iness to the final product, but they came up with enough power to take the song beyond a one-hit-wonder thing that you smile at and never need to hear ever again.