Song of the Day #869: ‘Alice Childress’ – Ben Folds Five

I’ve written before about how I believe great albums have a moment when they become great. A special album is great start to finish, certainly, but there is usually a point almost halfway through when the whole thing just leaps up to another level.

‘Alice Childress’ is that point on Ben Folds Five.

This song is on my short list of favorite Ben Folds tunes, which puts it on my short list of favorite songs by anybody. It’s pretty and profound and deeply moving without ever striving to be important.

One of my favorite things about Ben Folds is that he is the opposite of pretentious — he goes out of his way to write the way people talk. And in the process he often writes far more meaningful songs than people who fancy themselves true poets.

‘Alice Childress’ is a perfect example. Every one of these verses could be part of an everyday conversation and yet each one is poignant. That’s partly due to the beautiful piano line that leads into each, of course, and Folds’ earnest delivery. But it’s mostly the words.

“Some summers in the evening after six or so, I walk on down the hill and maybe buy a beer. I think about my friends, sometimes I wish they lived out here. But they wouldn’t dig this town.” With those opening lines I can picture this guy’s whole life. He’s lonely but it’s not the sort of loneliness that can be easily cured because he doesn’t know where he belongs, let alone with whom.

But he’s addressing this song to somebody else… to Alice Childress (which Ben has said is just a name he likes the sound of, and no connection to the playwright of the same name). In the second verse he tries to cheer her up: “Alice, the world is full of ugly things that you can’t change. Pretend it’s not that way, that’s my idea of faith. You can blow it off and say there’s good in nearly everyone. Just give them all a chance.”

What a lovely sentiment, all the more powerful for being so realistic. Tucked away in this little relationship tune is one of the most profound statements on faith I’ve ever heard in a song. People can do horrible things, but that doesn’t mean all people are horrible. And maybe by pretending the world is a better place, we can actually make it one.

The bridge suggests for the first time that the singer and Alice are former lovers. “It didn’t work out the way we thought it would… an arranged marriage is not so good.” Maybe this was a pairing urged by their families, or maybe the arrangement wasn’t as literal as that but more the kind of relationship where everybody assumes you’ll get married because, well, that’s what you should do. At any rate, they’re apart now, in different time zones (“it’s getting late where you are”). But they still care about each other enough to be that light in a storm.

The final verse walks back a bit from the statement of faith. “Thank God it’s you, you know your timing is impeccable. I’m not fooling you, I don’t know what to do.
Some dude just knocked me cold and left me on the sidewalk, took everything I had.” The singer is quick to tell Alice that everything will be fine, but his faith has been shaken to its core. This mugging is more symbolic than anything, I think… an act that makes you wonder if it indeed makes sense to see the good in everyone.

‘Alice Childress’ doesn’t leave you with any easy answers. I wouldn’t imagine a reconciliation is in store for these two. And who knows if either one of them will pull out of these existential crises.

I like to think they will. That’s my idea of faith.

Some summers in the evening
After six or so
I walk on down the hill
And maybe buy a beer
I think about my friends
Sometimes I wish
They lived out here
But they wouldn’t dig this town
No they wouldn’t dig this town

CHORUS
Try not to think about it
Alice Childress
Try not to think about it anymore
Try not to think about it
Alice Childress
Anymore, no not anymore

Alice, the world
Is full of ugly things
That you can’t change
Pretend it’s not that way
That’s my idea of faith
You can blow it off
And say there’s good
In nearly everyone
Just give them all a chance
Give them all a chance

CHORUS

No it didn’t work out
No it didn’t work out
The way we thought it would
No it didn’t work out
An arranged marriage is not so good

Thank God it’s you
You know your timing is impeccable
I’m not fooling you
I don’t know what to do
Some dude just knocked me cold
And left me on the sidewalk
Took everything I had
Everything I had

Try not to think about it
Alice Childress
Try not to think about it anymore
It’s getting late where you are
Alice Childress
Anymore, no not anymore
Anymore, no not anymore

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3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #869: ‘Alice Childress’ – Ben Folds Five

  1. Dana says:

    Nothing to add to your excellent comments on this gem of a song, so I’ll just day “ditto,”

  2. Amy says:

    I’d say “ditto,” but that’s kind of boring, so I’ll add this:

    I’m not sure why exactly but I’ve always viewed this song and “A Long December” by Counting Crowsas sister songs in some way. A lot of it has to do with that conversational way profound sentiments are shared.

    Here are the lyrics to the other song:

    A long December and there’s reason to believe
    Maybe this year will be better than the last
    I can’t remember the last thing that you said as you were leaving
    Oh the days go by so fast

    And it’s one more day up in the canyons
    And it’s one more night in Hollywood
    If you think that I could be forgiven
    I wish you would
    (Na na na, etc. yeah)

    The smell of hospitals in winter
    And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls
    All at once you look across a crowded room
    To see the way that light attaches to a girl

    And it’s one more day up in the canyons
    And it’s one more night in Hollywood
    If you think you might come to California
    I think you should
    (Na na na, etc. yeah)

    Drove up to Hillside Manor sometime after 2 a.m.
    And talked a little while about the year
    I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower
    Makes you talk a little lower about the things you could not show her

    And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe
    Maybe this year will be better than the last
    I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself
    To hold on to these moments as they pass

    And it’s one more day up in the canyon
    And it’s one more night in Hollywood
    It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean
    I guess I should
    (Na na na, etc. yeah)

    Now that I’m looking at them both more closely, my recognition that these two songs could be related makes even more sense. Both protagonists write from a town (LA) where the person to whom they are speaking in not, at least at the moment, located. They are contemplating in solitude, late in the evening (after 6:00) or really late in the evening (after 2:00 a.m.) and both share profound insights.

    The one you share in your commentary today has always been a favorite of mine. That is my idea of faith, and Ben Folds beautifully conveys what a powerful faith such everyday committments can be. Duritz does something similar when he says,

    “And it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe
    Maybe this year will be better than the last
    I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself
    To hold on to these moments as they pass ”

    To me, these two sentiments expressed by Folds and Duritz are far more powerful than those poetic statements other pretentious artists try harder to make MEANINGFUL.

    I also agree that this is the song where Ben Folds becomes exceptional, so DITTO 🙂

  3. Clay says:

    Good catch. There is definitely a tonal and thematic similarity between those two songs. And it’s interesting to note that elsewhere on that same Counting Crows album, Duritz sings that he’s “got Ben Folds on my radio right now.”

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