That familiar blue (okay, purple) cover, featuring those grainy polaroids, probably sits comfortably in your mind alongside so many other ‘90s indie classics. But Ben Folds Five’s second record Whatever and Ever Amen is in a genre all of its own.
The 1997 album is a complex jazz telling of piano-driven punk rock, featuring distorted lead bass, showtune-style harmonies and lyrics that reference The Rockford Files.
Despite some initial trepidation from his earliest fans, the album earned the band a new level of fame. A whole new audience discovered Folds’ fiercely wry lyrics and obscenely catchy melodies.
"When you put out an album you have to simultaneously brace yourself for the end of your career and for huge success," Ben Folds told triple j’s Richard Kingsmill in 1999. "I didn't know what the album was going to do. If it stiffed, then I was ready for that. But it probably did a little better than I imagined it doing."
Whatever and Ever Amen was a bit of a departure for the group, with the odd mournful ballad now sitting astride the singalong anthems that showcased the wild and furious energy of their live shows. His trademark self-deprecation caused him to dub his own act ‘punk rock for sissies’.
"We'd been touring around the country for a few years just playing fast, loud music and we felt the need to tell some stories and slow it down a bit. And I think it holds up," he told triple j’s Zan Rowe and Lindsay McDougall in 2013.
The track ‘Brick’ was one such moment on the album, looking at Ben’s deeply personal and heartbreaking experience of terminating a pregnancy with his high-school girlfriend.
"I was just trying to say 'here's how I felt about it. Here's what it feels like” he told Zan and Lindsay. “If the song is sad to you, you can multiply that times 100 and that's what it's really like.
"I didn't feel, after leaving the song to do its own thing, I didn't feel that I had exploited it. I'll tell people anything about myself so long as I feel like I'm being responsible about it."
The unforgettable chorus of the song was penned by drummer Darren Jessee. It took the very literal telling of Folds’ high school experience and added a layer of mystique that perhaps dulled the intensity of the subject matter and gave it a more widespread appeal.
‘One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces’ covers the notion of being a nobody at school then growing up to laugh in everybody’s faces. Some argue that it’s autobiographical, though Folds denies this. While ‘Song For The Dumped’ again took some of Jessee’s lyrics to help narrate the ugly, angry wash up of a bad breakup.
On paper, an album with this many conflicting musical and thematic influences shouldn’t work cohesively. But the enormous success of Whatever and Ever Amen proves that the cost compelling rock’n’roll doesn’t have to follow any rules.