I was a few years late to the party on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The album, which was released on April 27th, 1999, would be the last for Ben Folds Five, until their comeback album almost exactly a decade later. I discovered the album the summer after I graduated high school, in 2003, courtesy of my friend Dan. I remember riding around late at night, smoking a joint when he put this record on. I asked him who it was and when he told me, I remember saying, “The same guys that did Brick?” Musically speaking, that night changed me.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is an album that either speaks to you or it doesn’t. It’s fairly cut and dried in that sense, but if you’re like me and this album does pull you in, you go on a journey with it. The album has a jazzy, somber sound from start to finish and tells a story. It’s ambitious in the sense that it was both a concept album and also a departure in sound from the band’s previous efforts. Ben Folds himself described the band as “punk rock for sissies” but none of the attitude or energy was to be found on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The band set out to create their masterpiece, and in my humble opinion, they did just that.
Concept albums were not a new idea when Ben Folds Five put this album out, but for a band that wasn’t considered to be “radio friendly” to begin with—with the exception of their smash hit, “Brick”—it was a risky proposition. The album didn’t sell well, despite being met with mostly positive reviews. In his iTunes Originals interview, Folds had this to say about the record:
“The Reinhold Messner record was—I think in a way it shows how naïve we were, and idealistic we were as a band to think the music business would care about us extending ourselves and developing and being something different, because that record was a failure—in almost every way that you can fail. As a commercial release, it didn’t sell up to anybody’s expectations; critically, it got sort of lukewarm reviews; and yet, I think that was our best work. I think it’s a great record.”
As an 18-year-old, I was drawn into the sound of this album. Songs such as “Hospital Song,” “Magic” and “Mess” captivated me. The lyrical content pulled me in next, with the fictional character of Reinhold Messner (the band did not know of the real Reinhold Messner until after the album was already released) and this journey of self that he was on, the type of philosophical questions that all young people tend to ask themselves about life and death and the importance of what they’ve done in their own life.
Over the years though, this album has taken on even greater importance to me. It has become a symbol of creativity, of artistic freedom and taking big chances. It has become a symbol of having a vision and going for it, regardless of what failure may look like. This album is artistry at its finest, told the way the artists wanted to without any kind of “corporate handcuffs.” The fact that it didn’t sell well is unfortunate. The fact that the band broke up following their tour to support the album speaks to the likely frustration and pain of their masterpiece not being well received and the business problems that likely caused. That’s really unfortunate, especially after seeing what they were capable of together.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner is an album that to this day, when I mention on social media, a handful of people speak up about, sharing their favorite tracks and mentioning how they still listen to it all these years later. How it moved and inspired them. How it broke down walls musically for them. Especially in the years where the concept of an album seemingly became less important than what single could sell, an album like The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner carries a weight of importance, a throwback of sorts to a time period in music before the business completely changed.
I don’t know if there’s such thing as a “perfect album” or not, but The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner doesn’t have a track I skip. My feelings for it have only intensified over the years, and the meaning of the lyrics have taken on greater importance. My appreciation for the chances they took on this album has grown. I’m not going to toss around a term like perfect but is this one of my 10 favorite albums of all time? Absolutely. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing this album before, grab your headphones and go on a journey of self discovery with Reinhold Messner.