When Ben Folds emerged from the alt-rock scene of the mid-’90s, he stood out from the pack by writing some of the prettiest piano-pop melodies since the heydays of Joe Jackson and Billy Joel, and by penning lyrics that were sometimes ridiculously acerbic. Those two facts weren’t coincidental. It may have been because Folds was such a freak among his own peers—so polished, so effortlessly hooky—that he became an unapologetic crank, savaging the too-cool-to-care college kids, the nagging girlfriends, and anyone else who didn’t dig what he was doing. At the time, Folds’ bile seemed a bit protest-too-much-y. He was capable of such pop gems as the rippling, harmonic “Alice Childress” and the forlorn “Boxing.” Why did he have to be so distracted by the unappreciative?
Now, though, removed from the immediacy of the fray, the snider songs on the three-disc Folds anthology The Best Imitation Of Myself: A Retrospective sound like snapshots of their time and place, and of where Folds’ head was at the time. It’s easier to enjoy the bounciness of “Underground,” “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and “Battle Of Who Could Care Less” without feeling that liking the song equates to approval of Folds’ reductive worldview. Even the anti-love-songs “Brick” and “Song For The Dumped”—while still unpleasant—are fascinating as a document of Folds’ knee-jerk defensiveness. It’s all part of the bigger picture of who Folds was, at least during his first flush of success: a sophisticated pop-rock wunderkind with a nasty streak.
The Best Imitation Of Myself is available in a too-short, cut-to-the-chase 17-song edition, which is heavier on the snotty rockers and misses some of Folds’ less-complicated, more enjoyable songs, such as “Zak And Sara” and “Not The Same.” Those two appear on the too-long three-disc version of The Best Imitation, which adds live tracks, demos, and other rarities—many of which are inessential, or at least inferior to the studio versions. Even in an unwieldy package, though, Folds’ gift for song-construction and his skills as a performer are hard to deny. He’s never been easy to embrace fully, but his contradictions are part of what makes him unique.