“Selfless, Cold and Composed” is full of meaning for me; it’s one of the first times that Ben Folds Five sailed boldly towards the jazzy horizon in both a good (Those drums!) and bad (That piano solo at 3:17, before the strings come in to give it some structure, albeit one that we’ve already heard in an earlier break!) way, for one thing, and it’s a song where the chorus and verse play off each other in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit together well, which… may be intentional (“It’s easy to be” is so 1970s MOR in terms of melody that it sticks out like a sore thumb, but that’s possibly the point, considering that the line mocks the behavior of the person in question)?
Really, though, it’s a song that reminds me of the aftermath of the relationship I was in when Whatever And Ever Amen, the album this track comes from, was released. I remember listening to this with that early-20s sense of “Yeah, why aren’t you clearly upset about me like you should be?” that you get when you’re heartbroken and hurt and confused and don’t understand that whole dumping thing properly. That ridiculously strong emotional sense memory comes on every time I hear the song, and each time that happens, I fight the urge to track down the ex-girlfriend in question and apologize to her for being an idiot. Because, really; I was an idiot, in those days, and especially about her.
Another song that was playing during a particularly surreal split with a girlfriend. Cut to – what, 1997, maybe 1998? Whatever year that the second album by Ben Folds Five (Whatever And Ever Amen) came out – and I’m in bed with my girlfriend as we watched The Chart Show, the Saturday morning chart show that soundtracked so many beginnings of weekends back then. Somehow, this song (which both of us liked, and found ourselves looking forward to, I remember) brought up the fact that we weren’t really going anywhere as a couple, and that maybe we should call it a day. Sticking with the apathetic tone of the song’s lyrics, the split at that point was surprisingly amiable and agreeable, some kind of “Hey, so this is what we’re doing, I guess? Okay, I suppose that’s okay” from both of us that, hours later, we were telling friends with a tone of “Did we actually have that conversation?” somewhere mixed in.
Within a week, everything had become drama and tears and shouting, of course. Maybe the calming qualities of Ben Folds should’ve been deployed in all of our conversations for some time afterwards, as a matter of safety and sanity-preservation.
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.