Song of the Day #216: ‘Mess’ – Ben Folds Five

messnerBen Folds Five’s third (and final) album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner didn’t live up to the promise of their first two. Studio gimmickry too often stands in for strong songwriting, especially in the album’s second half.

The first half, however, features several fine songs, including the lilting Bacharach-esque ‘Don’t Change your Plans,’ the crowd-pleasing ‘Army,’ and ‘Magic,’ a somber ballad about the loss of a grandparent.

But the best song on Messner, and one of the best songs Ben Folds has ever written, is ‘Mess.’ It seems to be written from the perspective of a man who has just screwed up a relationship as he addresses a previous lover. Either that or there’s some weird mixing of pronouns here. That reading would make sense given Folds’ romantic history… he’s been divorced three times now and written songs about all of his former wives.

The subject matter is compelling but it’s the music that really elevates this song for me. I love the piano work, the drums, the bass, the backing vocals. I love how the instruments kick in one at a time to start the song and how they come to a stumbling stop at the close.

I’m also thrilled by a provocative line in the chorus — “and I don’t believe in God so I can’t be saved” — that’s one of the few expressions of atheism I’ve heard in a popular song, and probably the only one in a relationship song.

There was a time when I had nothing to explain
Oh, this mess I have made
But then things got complicated
My innocence has all but faded
Oh, this mess I have made
And I don’t believe in God so I can’t be saved
All alone, as I’ve learned to be
In this mess I have made

All the untested virtue
The things I said I’d never do
Least of all to you
I know he’s kind and true
I know that he is good to you
He’ll never care for you more than I do

But I don’t believe in love so I can’t be tamed
All alone, as I’ve learned to be
In this mess I have made

The same mistakes over and over again

There are rooms in this house
That I don’t open anymore
Dusty books and pictures on the floor
That she will never see
She’ll never see that part of me
I want to be for her what I could never be for you

And I don’t believe in God so I can’t be saved
All alone, as I’ve learned to be
In this mess I have made

18 thoughts on “Song of the Day #216: ‘Mess’ – Ben Folds Five

  1. Dana says:

    Ah, I can finally get back to disagreeing with you:) I know you have always been a bit down on this album compared to the first 2, but I respectfully disagree. I think this is a really great and evolved effort. I’m always a sucker for wonderful production, and this album has it in spades over the 1st 2. In fact, while I understand your affection for the live feel of the 1st album, I must admit there is a part of me (and I bet a part of Folds also) that would like to see it re-recorded with the superior production of the 3rd album, much in the way that Billy Joel probably would love to go back and re-record his pre-Stranger (or at least pre-Turnstiles) albums.

    Now, I can see where the whole voice message recording over jazz music in You rMost Valuabe Possesioon might seem a bit gimmicky and I also would agree that Regrets may be the weakest song on the album. But, I think REdneck Past is rather fun and the album closes strong with Jane and Lullaby. I find the first half of the album pretty exceptional, with Hospital Song perhaps being the weakest of the bunch, but still pretty touching in its own right.

    Ao for today’s song, I do agree that it is a standout on this album.

    Oh., wait, am I being too agreeable? Okay, the song bites the big weenie!

  2. Clay says:

    Heresy! Re-recording the first album with superior production would be like adding digital effects to the original Star Wars… and you saw how that turned out!

    I don’t dislike this album by any means — I like it. I just don’t think it’s on the same level as the first two. And in some cases it boils down to the production. I love the version of ‘Jane’ on Ben Folds Live but this one feels a bit syrupy. ‘Regrets’ is pretty much an excuse to try some Pink Floyd-esque tricks. And ‘Your Most Valuable Possession’ is just odd. I’ve also never really warmed up to ‘Your Redneck Past,’ finding it a bit cartoonish (though the lyrics are good).

    However, the rest of the album, including the wonderful ‘Lullaby,’ is extremely strong. So my tepid response is primarily based on comparisons with their first two albums, which I find practically flawless from start to finish.

  3. Amy says:

    This is a good song, but I’m still wondering how a week featuring Ben Folds’ songs could not feature “Brick,” “Alice Childress,” “Philosophy,” or “Jackson Cannery.” It’s become clear over the weeks on this blog that I am far more a fan of songs than of albums or even artists, so I know I’m alone out here, but those are the songs I completely associate with Ben Folds. You may as well be featuring Santogold at this rate, for all the famiiarity and love I have for the songs you’ve featured thus far.

  4. Clay says:

    Clearly you need to listen to more complete albums! It seems your knowledge of Ben Folds Five is limited to the first three songs on their debut album plus their only radio hit. That simply won’t do!

  5. Dana says:

    Here, here, Clay. Amy hears a song she likes and se plays it over and over and over and over. She is custom made for the Itunes generation!

  6. Clay says:

    Kids today…

  7. Amy says:

    Did you see my albums list on Facebook? It’s quite apparent I haven’t listened to a complete album to the point of falling in love with it (with the important exception of Counting Crows) since 1989. How crazy is that? Though it certainly makes sense, as it coincides with the end of college and the beginning of LIFE AS WE KNOW IT. Who has time to listen to complete albums?!

  8. Clay says:

    Isn’t that a bit like saying ‘who has time to watch complete movies?’ and preferring to watch clips of them on YouTube instead?

  9. Amy says:

    No, not at all.

  10. Clay says:

    A better analogy is watching individual episodes of a TV show as opposed to a whole season.

    Musically, you are more of a CSI viewer than a Lost viewer.

  11. Amy says:

    Hmmm…. I don’t think every album is a Lost. You’re imagining that each album is a series of songs that lose something essential if you don’t listen to them in the order they have been placed on the album, each building on the clues left in the song before. I’m saying many albums are a collection of songs, and like a book of short stories, picking out the one you feel like listening to/reading at the moment does no disservice to the album/book as a whole.

  12. Clay says:

    We’re splitting this conversation between two threads now, but as I said in the other one, I don’t think every album is a Lost. But many great ones are.

  13. Amy says:

    To try to merge the two conversations, I’ll respond to your last comment on the other thread here….

    A “sketch” is typically used to describe an illustration that hasn’t been fleshed out, and while I certainly agree that writers can create sketches of their ultimate stories, they don’t pass those off as the finished product. It seems to me that any song by virtue of its length must be tagged a sketch in this sense. We hardly learn much more about good old Annie than we do about Rosalinda or Brenda and Eddie or Jack and Diane.

    A song that reveals the emotional lives of one or more characters should be considered a narrative as you are defining it. How “Annie Waits” satisfies your definition while “Rosalinda’s Eyes” does not is beyond me.

  14. Clay says:

    ‘Annie Waits’ is about a woman sitting by the phone, waiting for a call or visit from somebody who isn’t going to show up. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time… it’s certainly a teeny tiny narrative, but it is a narrative (in the plot sense).

    ‘Rosalinda’s Eyes’ tells you about the singer’s occupation and that he loves a woman named Rosalinda… it doesn’t show you a moment in their lives. That’s the only distinction I’m making. ‘Piano Man’ and ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ do describe moments in time.

    I think we’re splitting hairs, and I’m certainly not making any judgments on the quality of any of these songs. I just like how Rockin’ the Suburbs makes use of that short story format.

  15. Amy says:

    “I play nights in the Spanish part of town… the work is hard to find, but that don’t get me down. Rosalinda understands.” Sounds like a moment in their lives to me.

  16. Clay says:

    No, that’s their situation, like you saying “I teach English in Miami.”

    Had he said “I’m playing my piano in the Spanish part of town when Rosalinda walks in and, understanding that such a gig is rare for me, shows her support by smiling and doing a seductive dance” … now THAT would be a moment!

  17. Amy says:

    He is down because he has trouble finding work, but his woman is understanding is not the same thing as I teach English in Miami. You’re just being silly ;-P

  18. Clay says:

    OK… “I teach English in Miami… it’s hard dealing with the administration but I don’t let it get to me. My husband understands.” It’s still not a narrative (in the sense I’m talking about)!

    ‘All for Leyna’ and ‘Captain Jack’ are two Billy Joel songs that fit my criteria. ‘New York State of Mind’ and ‘Pressure’ do not.

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