Listen to this track by guitarless, and seemingly numerically-challenged, indie-pop trio Ben Folds Five. It’s “Alice Childress” as taken from their 1995 debut record, the self-titled Ben Folds Five, an album that does without many indie-pop conventions of the time, yet is packed with ironic humour, punk energy, and in this tune in particular, a profound sense of pathos, too.
The song, and the album off of which it comes pulls from sources well established in 70s AM pop radio, from The Stranger-era Billy Joel, to ELO, to Joe Jackson. Yet, the band’s music, which is centered around Ben Folds’ sardonic lyrics and jazz-influenced piano, is infused with a sense of irony that undercuts the way it might be perceived on the first go-round as straight-ahead pop music. As such, the trio wasn’t exactly the darling of North American radio at the time this record was released, even if they had a strong grass roots appeal on college radio.
Taking pot shots at big targets in US pop culture and subculture is a big part of this record (see ‘Underground’, a poke at the very indie crowd of which they were ostensibly a part). Luckily, the rest of the English-speaking world could appreciate Ben Folds’ propensity for taking the piss in his songs. Perhaps this is because the music could be more easily appreciated from a cultural distance. As a result, the band was championed in the UK, and in Australia where Folds eventually came to live permanently for a time.
And whether or not this song preceded that move, there remains to be a sense of displacement that I think has an effect on this tune, co-written by Folds then-wife Anna Goodman. This song that seemingly name-checks American author and playwright Alice Childress is not actually a reference to her. In actuality, it’s about a woman who Goodman was in charge of while working in a mental hospital with the same name. While in an agitated state, the titular Alice threw water on Goodman, an experience which inspired Goodman to write a song in Ben Folds’ style.
Yet, something in the song inspired Ben Folds to re-work it. And where the song was once centred around a specific experience, Folds took it to another plane, telling a tale of separation and alienation between two lovers who’ve come to grow in different directions, both geographically as well as emotionally. There is a certain irony here, given Folds’ relationship with Goodman, which ended a few years before this song appeared on the band’s debut record.
Of course, a more overt version of this same story appears in the form of “Song For the Dumped” on the band’s 1997 follow-up LP Whatever and Ever Amen. That song that dispenses with the subtleties of break-ups altogether, and concentrates on the anger part – and the splitting up of the stuff.
Ben Folds image courtesy of John Morrison.