Songs I wish I'd written: #5

November 1, 2021 10:18 AM ET music

“Thank You For Breaking My Heart”
by Ben Folds Five

Ben Folds Five’s music saved me when I was thinking about putting the piano down for good, and while I like Folds’ solo material (most of the time), I believe there’s a special chemistry that this band has above the other permutations.

I love the treatment of the piano as a lead—if not aggressive—instrument, because it’s always so easy to sound precious and cloying. Sometimes, I don’t love the result, and it’s rare that I love a whole album; this is true of Folds’ material as well. Listening to this band for the first time, I was struck by how full their sound was with just three instruments and three voices, but the songwriting is what kept me coming back. Always wanting to be a guitar player, this group showed that it’s not the instrument that makes the band, it’s the writing.

It’s more than a little ironic, then, that one of the best songs is very nearly a piano solo. “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” has none of the aggression that drew me in years ago, but this song is just gorgeously done. There’s a ton of air in the recording room, and everything breathes it in. While not the most original sentiment, the song takes the listener from the moment of heartbreak through to the end, trying to hold on to the eventual benefit and acceptance. It’s a good encapsulation of that feeling, in retrospect. A sadness, the echo of longing, but superseded by gratefulness. It closes a strong album with a bold whisper – it sounds like turning the last page of a book that really speaks to you.

It’s easy to get sidetracked into trying to pigeonhole where Folds lands in the pantheon of piano-based songwriters. Is he the heir to the Billy Joel line or the Elton John line? (Answer: neither) Is he more of a modern day Jerry Lee Lewis, smashing his tack-hammered Baldwin with a piano stool, or a poor man’s whitebread pop-song version of Stevie Wonder? Who cares. Folds is not the best singer, player, or songwriter, but he’s so good at all of these that the addition of just bass and drums and two other decent singers is enough to create magic.

One of the things that Ben Folds does so well is featured in this song. It’s a countermelody he plays at the 1:16 mark, an answer to the first phrase of the chorus. It exists in response but also in its own time, falling and spiraling down before the second vocal phrase begins. The second time this happens, it’s so behind the beat that you wonder if was played at the same time as the rest of the song. Considering that this song has another melody that precedes each verse and concludes the song, it’s impressive how much this countermelody shines.

This isn’t a new trick: they have these featured piano melodies on almost every Ben Folds Five record, often in bridges. You can hear it in “Boxing,” “Evaporated” (both of which are also album closers), and “Hospital Song.” But in this song, there’s a kind of dreamy, offhand style to it that reminds you of the artistry hidden in these post-pop-punk piano rock songs.


Yeah, I want a different answer
So, I ask you once again
But the truths and the silence
And this time I got it
It’s over

Thank you for breaking my heart
Now I know that it’s in there
I left it wide open and asked you to stay
But you know better

Guess I thought it wouldn’t happen
And I could care until it hurt
Damn the ironic timing, the clouds and their linings
That open up and pour

And thank you for breaking my heart
Now I know that it’s in there
What a fool to imagine that you’d feel the same
But you know better

Rain has washed the leaves away
Skeletons and stars
I’m pulling the door too
And closing the blinds

So thank you for breaking my heart
Now I know what it feels like
And it hurts so badly
Tell me this will pass soon
And I know better