Ben Folds Five performs during the Last Summer on Earth tour at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas on June 17, 2013. Picture Credit: Cooper Neill/WireImage

Smoke Signals

How a song can drift across a life

On Pop

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

This is a story about a song in three acts, which is a story about how music moves through your life. The first time I heard the song in 1997, it was in the usual way I first heard much of the music I’m most attached to: in my bedroom, on a CD album that I’d acquired with nothing more than hope that I’d enjoy it based on a having caught a few singles on the radio and read some reviews.

It felt like a window into the world of adult emotions

The album was Whatever and Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five, who I had immediately liked because they weren’t a five but a trio, which seemed like a good joke. Actually, they were only barely a trio since Folds himself was the obvious focus and driver of the band: the songwriter, pianist and singer on the band’s piano-and-vocal led songs.

This setup was also something I liked about the band, because it had a defiant lack of coolness: Britpop and grunge were tailing off, and electro and hip-hop were beginning to lead the pack. Lo-fi lassitude or party vibes were the main available options, and Folds was neither. He was like Elton John or Billy Joel — but with jokes. The track that gives Whatever its title is a tightly observed pisstake of a studied slacker who Folds finally dismisses with the barb: “See I’ve got your old ID/And you’re all dressed up like the Cure.”

But the song I fell for isn’t funny at all. It’s called “Smoke” and it’s a waltz-time dissection of a breakup: “Leaf by leaf and page by page, throw this book away.” I didn’t know it at the time, but Folds — who was an ancient-in-pop-years thirty-something by the time he got his breakthrough — had co-written it with his ex-wife Anna Goodman, which adds to the poignancy.

At the time it felt like a window into the world of adult emotions and I, 15 and with not a single breakup to my name, listened to it on repeat and wondered when I would feel anything so interesting as this. Whatever formed a key part of my early study of “what boys think”, a not very scientifically selected and in some cases possibly traumatising array of cultural works that seemed to display the male psyche (which is, of course, a thing of some overwhelming interest when you aspire to having relationships with the males attached to these psyches).

The second time it shoved into me, it was about five years ago and I was in the passenger seat of a car in France as my friend drove me from the airport to her house. “Oh! I love this!” I said when she put it on. And she explained that the album, which for me was the soundtrack to maths homework and lame crushes, had been for her the soundtrack to moving to London from America and starting a new life.

As a teenager, I’d had an irrational belief that music was the only valid sorting mechanism for relationships: that if I could find someone who liked enough of the same things as me, I would find someone with whom I would have a close and productive intimacy. This is, obviously, not a great plan.

A song is a portal. It’s an electrical contact across times, across places, across people

Taste, as Pierre Bourdieu had explained in the seventies (and I had read at university between buying Whatever and hearing it in the car), is a decent proxy for class and education — but it can’t tell you whether someone is actually nice. (And it would be weird if it could, given the number of people who make music I like and who I emphatically would not have round for dinner.) So I’d stopped asking people about their favourite bands before deciding to be friends with them.

This, though, was a different thing. Not a check-box filter for who I would decide to like, but proof that someone I liked very much had shared this point of contact with me for years before we met. We shared comparative stories of the nineties (hers much more interesting than mine) as she drove, breaking off from the chat occasionally to sing along: “Leaf by leaf and page by page, throw this book away.” “Smoke”, a lovely melancholy waltz about leaving the past behind, was the backdrop to friendship clicking firmly together in the present.

The song came back to me again quite recently, at a funeral — a funeral that was, for various reasons, extraordinarily painful. As I trailed behind the coffin to the burial ground, “Smoke” came into my head, the kind of perfect mental rendition that’s only possible when you’ve listened to a song hundreds and hundreds of times.

“All the sadness, all the rage, throw this book away,” I thought, walking to my private waltz. And for the duration, I was there with the funeral party; and I was in my old bedroom; and I was in my friend’s car, laughing and happy.

A song is a portal. It’s an electrical contact across times, across places, across people. The teenage me who first heard “Smoke” could never have conceived the places I would carry it to, the relationships it would become a part of (and I’ve still never had a breakup worth its gorgeous sadness). I held it in me over decades like a prayer, and when I needed it, I had recourse. “All of the grief we never even knew we had it all along/ Now it’s/ Smoke.”

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