When Ben Folds Five called it quits in 2000 following the release of their career-best album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, fans were left wondering if the group had left the party too soon. One thing was certain, no one had heard the last from Ben Folds. In fact, his musical evolution was just beginning.
Folds’ solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs, which had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001, is full of songs about fractured innocence and damaged souls. If there’s an underlying theme that unites the 12 disparate songs on the LP, it can be found in “Still Fighting It,” in which a father tells his son that, yes, life sucks, and getting through it with your soul intact is a struggle that is both universal and constant.
The material featured in Rockin’ The Suburbs (congruent title track aside) was the logical next step for Folds given how previous efforts like “Brick” and “Don’t Change Your Plans” had shown how effective Ben Folds Five could be when they, in the parlance of the 1990s, stopped being polite and started getting real. Each of the tracks on Rockin’ the Suburbs is about something difficult, whether it be the lingering ghost of a failed relationship (“Gone”) or a graceful waltz about the death of a long-married couple that doubles as the most poignant romance song of the 21st century to date (“The Luckiest.”)
While Folds has gone on to release several more solo efforts, become a judge on The Sing-Off, endured an a cappella phase, and reformed/disbanded Ben Folds Five once more, nothing he has done has yet matched the artistry of Rockin’ the Suburbs. In honor of the album’s 15th anniversary, we decided to look back at a milestone moment in his career by ranking the songs from least to most affecting.
12. “Rockin’ the Suburbs”
Every bro’s favorite Ben Folds song, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is a sly satire that pokes fun at white privilege. Unfortunately, it lacks the bite of subsequent cultural studies from Folds such as “Jesusland,” and as such, its potshots at Limp Bizkit-type acts immediately carbon date the song as a relic from the year 2001. It’s not horrible per se, but when the rest of the album is so timeless this song sticks out like “Nookie” on a Steely Dan playlist.
Echoing Greta Garbo’s famous sentiment “I want to be alone,” “Fired” sounds like a mid-period Billy Joel leftover, only one that is about desperately craving solitude instead of, say, leaving a tender moment alone. This is not a knock mind you, but rather a reminder that, like the Piano Man himself, Folds is an ivory-tickling master whose ending declaration of “Motherf*cker” is every bit as cathartic as the f-bomb Joel drops when he performs “Pressure” in concert. After all, at their core, both songs are about an innate desire to get away from the rat race to have some personal time.
10. “Losing Lisa”
Sometimes relationships fall apart and one party is almost entirely to blame. Recognizing this, Folds brings us “Losing Lisa” and its declaration that “black tears are falling down her face and I am wrong.” It’s unknown exactly how autobiographical this particular tune is, but anyone who has found themselves causing pain (either on purpose or inadvertently) to their romantic partner can understand the gut punch the song delivers. That it does so while being so wholly jaunty is especially sinister.
9. “Carrying Cathy”
When it comes to candid pop music discourses on suicide of the early aughts, perhaps only Barenaked Ladies’ heart-wrenching “War on Drugs” matches the emotional impact of “Carrying Cathy.” Laid upon a groundwork of gentle key plucking, Folds relates the story of a person who watches helplessly as their loved one slips into the chasm of depression through pained vocals as the song reaches its tragically inevitable conclusion. The harsh lesson to be learned is that, no matter how much you may struggle to do so, some people can’t be saved from the mental illness that consumes them. (As BNL’s aforementioned song sums it up from the POV of the suicidal, “when nature calls, you go.”) Despairing yes, but also a reminder of the capacity in which we as people are capable of love.
8. “Zak and Sara”
Boy meets girl. Boy wants a new guitar. Girl possesses psychic abilities. Boy plays Girl a song. Girl has a vision of rave culture in the not-too-distant future. Together, they idle away a day in a guitar store, circa 1984. It’s your typical love song, really. Piano power pop is an increasingly rare thing, but in the hands of Ben Folds, it is masterful.
7. “The Ascent of Stan”
Idealism doesn’t pay the rent, so sometimes to succeed you’ve got to sacrifice a little bit of your soul. It’s another truth grenade launched by Folds in “The Ascent of Stan,” in which a “textbook hippie man” learns that “it’s no fun to be the man.” Everything about this song is so perfectly 1970s — from the salient wisdom of the lyrics to its glossy production — that you fully expect Folds to launch into “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” following the final chorus.
6. “Not the Same”
Allegedly inspired by actual events, this story song presents the compelling case of a man who takes an acid trip, becomes a born again Christian, and changes the course of his life overnight. Related with a detached empathy, Folds conveys both pity and scorn for the drug casualty, and a song that was initially about one person’s individual experience takes on a larger scale as the story progresses. How many people do you know in life that have “one good trick” that they are hanging on to? And does their inability to let go of the sole trait that has defined their live forever negatively cloud your judgment of them? When does a strict unwillingness to change become an albatross around a one-trick-pony’s neck, and is there anyone left who even cares to see it? Fun fact: Whenever this song is performed live and Folds mentions ex-bandmate Robert Sledge, it invariably draws a bigger response from the crowd that when he namedrops Jesus Christ.
5. “Fred Jones Part 2”
Audiences first experienced the exquisite pain of the Fred Jones character in the Ben Folds Five song “Cigarette” (from 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen). That tune, a slight step above a Morrissey-esque dirge, had Jones’ cancer-stricken wife accidentally burning down his house. “Fred Jones Part 2” checks back in with him and, sadly, things haven’t gotten any better. Jones has just been unceremoniously laid off from his newspaper job of 35 years, and without a job to fall back on he has become completely rudderless. An employee tasked with rushing him out of the office where Jones has spent over three decades of his life can barely muster an apology, and it is soon revealed that poor Fred “Is forgotten and not yet gone.”
There’s a lot that can be read into this song — from the disposable way in which our country treats its elderly to the impact of new media upon the old guard of journalism. The major takeaway, though, is that once more Fred is alone with his quiet pain.
This may or may not be a good thing, but “Gone” is the closest Ben Folds will likely ever get to having a Jersey Boys phase. There’s a true doo-wop flavor that Folds brings to this song — which takes the form of a letter to a lost love penned by someone who clearly hasn’t moved on and probably never will — that makes it feel like a contemporary updating of “The Great Pretender.” The protagonist in “Gone” keeps promising that he will consider his ex gone, but we know that feeling of make-believe is the realest part of the song.
3. “Still Fighting It”
This funhouse mirror version of “Cats In The Cradle,” this song is sung from the perspective of a father who knows right away that his son will be just like he is. However, this has nothing to do with the kind of absentee fatherhood that made Harry Chapin’s tune such a beloved downer, but rather the realization that every child has to deal with the same difficult rites of passage that their parents did. In essence, Folds is saying, yup, growing up sucks, but you’ll get through it and be okay. It’s enough to bring a smile to your face, if only you could stop crying long enough.
2. “The Luckiest”
We are imperfect, and if we are fortunate enough, someone loves us for that. “The Luckiest” is an unabashed tear-jerker whose final verse relates the story of an elderly couple who die within days of each other because they couldn’t bear to be apart after so many years together. This isn’t Folds invoking poetic license, such things regularly are reported on in the sort of human interest segments that are used to kill time at the end of newscasts. The fact that such romance and sacrifice can exist in a world so utterly damaged as ours is almost unbelievably hopeful. It’s no wonder that this song has become a wedding staple. Plus, even with its straight-up creepy verse about the dude watching his soulmate ride her bike as a child, “The Luckiest” is still nowhere as creepy as “Butterfly Kisses.”
1. “Annie Waits”
In “Annie Waits,” the narrator details the sad loveless life of Annie, a woman who just can’t seem to find someone to provide her with love and contentment. And then, TWIST!, it turns out that the person relating the story is himself in love with Annie — and she is unwilling to love him back, or, perhaps worse, unaware of the love right in front of her. It’s hardly The Sixth Sense in terms of surprise endings, but oh man does this hit home if you’ve ever wanted someone so bad who couldn’t realize you were right there waiting for them (apologies to Richard Marx). There are rad handclaps, too. Rad handclaps may be what gave this one an edge over “The Luckiest.”