Ben Folds Five — a quirky rock trio led by pianist and main songwriter Ben Folds — came to the music scene as alternative rock was peaking. The band’s self-titled debut in 1993 stood out by eschewing guitars and presenting quirky piano-based pop tunes with humor and harmonies in sharp contrast to the rock music dominating radio at the time.
While associated with funny songs about a variety of eccentric characters, Ben Folds Five did have a more serious side, most notably heard on their sophomore album Whatever and Ever Amen and the poignant track “Brick.” As the band climbed into the mainstream with critical and commercial success, they contributed “Air” to the soundtrack to the 1998 film Godzilla, a huge summer blockbuster movie that placed them alongside some of the biggest popular artists at the time, including Rage Against The Machine, Puff Daddy, and Green Day.
“Air,” in many ways, was a preview of the new Ben Folds Five. The band would go on to further reveal their more mature and nuanced sound with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner the following year. It marked a serious transition for the band, featuring lusher instrumentation and production with bandleader Ben Folds striking a more somber tone in his lyrics and delivery.
Scott and Jason discuss how this transformation ultimately failed when The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner hit store shelves and appeared on the radio. While fans of the band would find songs such as “Army” familiar, much of the new material did not fit the mold Ben Folds and his bandmates had established on their first two records. “Air” serves as a notable, yet easy-to-miss song by a band in a profound stylistic change. It preserves the three-part vocal harmonies mostly absent from The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner album and highlights an emotional experience one could argue is about a struggle of one kind or another. While more ambiguous than the story told in “Brick,” the song relies equally on music and lyrics to take listeners on a mesmerizing journey.
While not a Ben Folds Five fan, Jason discusses how “Air” helps a listener connect with the band on a deeper level, thanks to its vague lyrics that leave interpretation up to the audience, allowing individuals to feel themselves through the words and music to apply their own experiences to it. Jason discusses how this is a powerful contrast to the earlier Ben Folds Five, who can make listeners feel like a bit of an outsider when they struggle to find comparable situations and people in their own lives to make the songs resonate. Scott reflects on an experience seeing Ben Folds perform by himself, shortly after the first breakup of the band, and how it helped him think about the man behind this unique music.