There always has to be a joke, doesn't there?...

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Bristol Colston Hall

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Bristol Colston Hall

There always has to be a joke, doesn’t there? [a]Ben Folds Five[/a] being only three, even the name is a red herring. And Reinhold Messner, the first man to scale Everest without oxygen, is an alias once used by drummer Darren Jessee on a fake ID. When approaching Ben Folds, then, be vigilant. He’s the little fellow controlling the decoy wizard from behind a curtain and you can never ever believe what you hear. Even when it sounds as good as this.

Ostensibly, ‘The Unauthorized…’ seems a work of open-veined sincerity. It has the ambitious scope and fragile bravado of a record hewn out of tremendous passion. The opening salvo is a sweeping five-and-a-half-minute string-and-space-noise-laden epic. But it’s called ‘Narcolepsy’, and it’s about trying to stay awake. Frustratingly, Folds‘ sentiments rarely match the lushness and complexity of the music. It’s never clear if, behind that elaborate orchestration and those ‘light’ lyrics, he’s hiding a smirk, or a tear.

When he does let the mask slip, as in the resigned ‘Don’t Change Your Plans For Me’ (“I love you, goodbye”), the elegiacally galloping ‘Mess’ (“I don’t believe in God/So I can’t be saved”) and the sweetly awed ‘Magic’ (“I saw you last night/The stars in the sky smiled in my room”), Folds reveals an affecting vulnerability. But [I]Ben Folds[/I] is forever the man with the over-size shoes and the crayon grin. So, there’s the irritatingly jaunty ‘Army’ and a rock opera wig-out at the end of ‘Regrets’ that just [I]has [/I]to be ironic.

Still, for all its inconsistencies, ‘The Unauthorized…’ is quite an achievement, reeling from plinkety cabaret to ’70s AOR to breathless Beach Boys melodics with panoramic ease. Folds is an oddly self-effacing nerd-king of musical pantomime, one part Andrew Lloyd Webber, one part Woody Allen. He’s clearly capable of making a record with formidable pop prowess, sensitivity and depth. You just can’t help but wish he’d drop the clown act, and get on with it.