For a prolific artist still actively making music, it’s a bear to put together a good greatest hits disc. It’s like trying to shoot a moving target; facets of the artist’s image come into focus, only to fade away again as he evolves. There’s no guarantee that the collection will even represent what the artist is trying to do five or ten years down the line.
That’s the problem that had to be facing Ben Folds as he sat down to put together a track list for his own best-of/greatest hits type collection, what he’s calling “a retrospective,” Best Imitation Of Myself. Taking its title from one of the standout songs on Ben Folds Five’s 1995 debut album, the collection’s been released in two flavors–a three-disc treasure trove of album tracks, rarities, and live cuts; and a slimmer single-disc version that’s essentially disc one of the three-disc released on its own.
Overall, both options are terrific collections. Ben Folds is a great songwriter, capable of moving effortlessly between sharply-observed character studies, intimate emotional revelations, and witty, vulgar humor–often within the same verse of a single song. Whether during his days with the Five or his solo years, he has always surrounded himself with sympathetic musicians who have helped immeasurably in bringing his unique musical vision to disc. From what seemed a kinda nutty germ of an idea–“Hey, let’s base an entire band around the sound from Elton John’s 11-17-70 live record!”–has grown into a collection of exceptional songs and albums produced over a couple decades of professional recording (and still going).
So the music’s great, and that’s reason enough to buy the set. But there’s an appropriately geeky question to be asked here: Does the great music capture everything that makes the artist great too? Is this an accurate portrait of Ben Folds, even just a couple decades into what will hopefull be many more decades of making amazing music?
In that sense, Best Imitation doesn’t quite hit the mark, especially the single-disc version. The brilliance of Ben Folds has always been found in that wide emotional spectrum he consistently draws from. When the proportions are off even slightly, there’s a void. It would be nice if the single-disc Best Imitation captured more of Ben in his witty and goofy moments; as it stands, the vibe of the disc is more sincere piano balladeer than anything else. And that’s not to downplay the exceptional quality of those ballads; it’s just that Ben Folds isn’t quite summed up by “Brick,” “The Luckiest,” and “From Above,” just to hit three high points from various stages of his career that are spotlighted on the disc. Perhaps it’s never possible to sum up a single artist on a single CD, especially a prolific one like Folds. But there seems to be a missing piece or two to his puzzle here.
The three-disc version of Best Imitation has more room to gather up the wacky alongside the profound, especially on the live disc, which is where Folds has most often indulged his propensity for sharp and hilarious improvisations, covers, and arrangements. A version of Wham’s “Careless Whisper” that finds Folds dueting with Rufus Wainwright carefully tiptoes along the line between irony and sincerity.
But the three-disc Best Imitation isn’t without fault either, and it’s a fault it sorta shares with the single-disc too: Suddenly, the line between Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five is blurry, if not gone entirely. The impulse is easy to understand–for diehard fans, there’s been no real distinction, and for casual fans, there’s no reason to create one. And clearly the other two members of the Five–drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge–had no problem with the way in which their work was arranged on the set.
Still, there’s a reason Ben Folds Five was a band and Ben Folds since is just a solo artist with musicians supporting him. It was a unique and irreplaceable alchemy that brought those three musicians together and enabled them to create the records they created. It’s a sound Folds has continued in his post-Five era, but never in quite the same way, and never with quite the same success. He’s put out great solo albums and he’s had some great backing combos but none of them became a band. To mix up Ben Folds Five and Ben Folds solo songs does the band a great disservice. It would have been nice if the single-disc version had become a double-disc, one devoted to just the Five and the other to Folds solo. This is especially true since the set features some of the Five’s first newly recorded material in a decade; while one of those tracks closes out the single-disc version of Best Imitation, others are scattered across the rarities disc of the three-disc set. It obscures the evolution of the Five and Ben’s ongoing evolution as an artist to mix these two separate sounds together arbitrarily.
When it comes to the music, there’s nothing wrong with Best Imitation of Myself. Track after track makes an unassailable case for Ben Folds as one of the best songwriters working today. As a collection representing Folds the recording artist, it could use a little more humor and a little more focus.