On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its release
For all you Zoomers and whippersnappers and whatnot, it’s tough to overstate just how weird the musical landscape was in 1997. It the six years since Nevermind, record labels had been throwing money, seemingly at random, at strange little bands emerging from local music scenes, with varying results. The West Coast-East Coast hip-hop rivalry had climaxed in the violent deaths of their two biggest stars, and the survivors seemed honestly shell shocked. The Spice Girls had, bewilderingly, appeared on our shores like a sentient neon-orange crop-top that came to life after being soaked in irradiated lavender body spray. SWING DANCING, for crying out loud, was about to become a thing.
Into this strange moment waltzed pianist Ben Folds, bassist Robert Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee. Ben Folds Five (and yes, there’s only three members) was fresh off a relatively successful indie debut; having charted in England, toured Japan, opened for Neil Young, and played Lollapalooza; and now signed to Epic Records. They returned to Chapel Hill, N.C., and set up a 16-track recorder running from Folds’ living room to a kitchen control room. As Folds details in his 2019 memoir, his neighbors came by his back door to hear what new “punk rock for sissies” the trio was brewing up only to be perplexed by a plodding ballad about … a brick? Had Sledge traded his fuzzed-out Hamer Blitz for … an upright bass and bow? It’s not clear whether they even grasped that song was about abortion, but they weren’t shy about expressing their disapproval.
Well, the joke was on them, because a year later, the plodding piano ballad about abortion was being played on mainstream radio stations across the country. It would prove the band’s biggest hit. Only in 1997 could something like this happen. It seemed weird at the time. But so did the Spice Girls.
Everybody who has ever been a senior in high school can point to that one album they discovered that year that seemed like it was written just for them. Whatever and Ever Amen was that album for me. Here was a collection of songs about a bunch of sadsacks and wannabes, played by nerds for nerds, with equal parts juvenile humor, romantic exuberance, and morose reflection. It was everything my 18-year-old, Billy Joel-loving ass was feeling at the time.
At the time, it was the first half of the album that hit hardest for me, with all its righteous drama of schoolyard underdogs and wronged lovers. Parts have not aged particularly well (dwarf, bitch, etc.). “Brick” looms large and is still stunning for its willingness to approach a fraught subject with blunt emotional honesty, but it’s hard to ignore that it does place the guy and his feelings at the center of the narrative, while the girl is cast aside.
Listening to the album with middle-aged ears, however, it’s the back half that I connect to now. Every song up through “Kate” is pretty clear about its intentions, but “Smoke” (which Folds co-wrote with his ex-wife) is much more mysterious and emotionally complex. Together with the brief, devastating “Cigarette”—which Folds wrote by taking one helluva run-on sentence directly from a newspaper clipping and setting it to music—they provide a somber break before the album comes swinging back with an assist from The Klezmatics on “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” is a banger, too; its critique of Gen-X detachment serves as something of a mission statement for the album, which takes its title from the song’s bridge.
Then we’re on to “Missing the War,” which has slowly, quietly become my favorite Ben Folds Five track. It starts out like another reserved ballad, but it gradually builds to a massive showstopper of a coda, a wall of “ahhhhs” built on a slab of bass. And finally, “Evaporated” provides some denouement to close things out (well, other than the hidden track).
The album sounds great for having been recorded in a living room. You’d never know save for the phone that rings in the middle of “Steven’s Last Night in Town.” You also can’t discount the magic that Sledge and Jessee brought to the project. Jessee peppers songs with jazzy fills, while Sledge provides the goofball rawk energy, all while they’re belting out complex, diminished-chord vocal harmonies. Folds wrote some amazing songs after the trio disbanded in 2000, but he’s never quite captured that same energy (save for the trio’s underrated 2012 reunion album). And it’s not studio layering. You can hear the same magic in the band’s live performances from the era. If you’re a fan and have never watched their West 54th Sessions, do yourself a favor.
Within two years of Whatever and Ever Amen’s release, the music industry had settled into the comfort zone of boy bands and Britney. Bands like Ben Folds Five were relegated to the realm of music blogs and niche fandom. Which is maybe for the best. It’s really no big deal. So what. Whatever.