Song of the Day #866: ‘Philosophy’ – Ben Folds Five

I discovered Ben Folds Five around the time their second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, was released. I liked enough of what I read and heard to buy both albums at the same time.

I don’t remember which one I listened to first, but I’m guessing it was the debut. I would have wanted to hear them in order of release, no doubt.

And when I heard that debut album, it was track two — ‘Philosophy’ — that really made my hair stand up on end. This was the song that convinced me I had discovered not just a good new band but a group that would quickly rocket up my list of favorites.

‘Philosophy’ is everything great about early Ben Folds Five in one 4-1/2 minute package. It starts off with some beautiful piano work, introduces the bass and drums, builds up during the verse and then kicks into full geek-grunge mode at the chorus. Drummer Darren Jesse and bassist Robert Sledge contribute the backing vocals that made so many early BFF songs while Ben sings the hell out of his provocative lyrics.

The song has a terrific bridge and a killer final verse and then, after one more reading of the chorus, veers off into full-on jam mode, with Folds pounding out the money notes of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at super-human speed before it all devolves into a grand, gloriously cacophonous mess.

Remove jaw from floor, press ‘repeat.’ I sure wish I could relive the experience of hearing this song, and this band, for the first time.

Folds has (jokingly) suggested that this song is about everything from the Statue of Liberty to his penis.

I don’t find the song all that hard to decipher. I love Ben Folds as a lyricist because he’s poetic in a very down-to-earth way. He’s sort of the opposite of Elvis Costello. His lyrics are seldom cryptic, but they say so much.

This one is about a visionary who kind of holds it against other people that they’re not as willing to take chances as he is. It could be about a musician, a politician, pretty much anybody who has a goal (a philosophy) and will be damned if anything’s going to get in his way.

Won’t you look up at the skyline
At the mortar block and glass
And check out the reflections in my eyes
You see they always used to be there
Even when this all was grass
And I sang and danced about a high-rise

You were laughing at my helmet hat
Laughing at my torch

Go ahead you can laugh all you want
I got my philosophy
Keeps my feet on the ground
And I trust it like the ground
And that’s why my philosophy
It keeps me walking when I’m falling down

I see that there is evil
And I know that there is good
And the in-betweens I never understood
Won’t you look at me, I’m crazy
But I get the job done
Yeah I’m crazy but I get the job done

CHORUS

I pushed you ’cause I loved you guys
I didn’t realize you weren’t having fun
I dragged you up the stairs
And I told you to fly
You were flapping your arms
You started to cry
You were too high
Too high

You may take this all for granted
Take the mortar, block and glass
And you forget the speech
That moved the stone
But it’s really not that you can’t see
The forest for the trees
You’ve never been out in the woods alone

So you can laugh all you want to
But I got my philosophy
Keeps my feet on the ground
And I love you, you’re my friend
But you got no philosophy
Now it’s time for this song to end

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3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #866: ‘Philosophy’ – Ben Folds Five

  1. Dana says:

    A true masterpiece of song. As for Folds’ lyrics, I agree that they are more accessible, but I wonder if Folds’ references would be a bit harder to decipher across the pond just as EC’s lyrics often make references foreign to us Americans but perhaps more familiar in Britain. I’m not suggesting that the lyrics in this song are an example of that necessarily, but there are other songs by Folds that do have a distinctly Americana feel and sensibility.

  2. Amy says:

    Jaw-dropping is a good word. That opening piano is just wonderful. This is, of course, another of those early songs that made me happy to have a contemporary (though not particularly commercial) musician playing the hell out of a piano rather than a guitar.

    I love that a YouTube search for Ben Folds returns scores of amateur piano men (haven’t seen a piano woman yet) covering his songs. Finally, they could put down the Elton John and Billy Joel song books and pick up a fresh one 🙂

  3. Clay says:

    Here’s a woman covering Folds. I made her a Song of the Day during amateur week.

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