Post-Millennial Classics: “Fred Jones, Pt. 2” by Ben Folds, a Touching Ode to a Local Hero

Ben Folds stepped away from the comfort zone of a late-’90s buzz band to make his solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs in 2001. At the time, it seemed like a risky move. All these years down the line, however, the album is regarded by many as a classic, distinguished by sparkling tunes like the heartbreaking “Fred Jones, Pt. 2.”

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What is the song about? Who inspired it? And was it really a sequel? To find all that out, let’s go back in time to when Ben Folds went solo with a wonder of an album.

Five to One

The Ben Folds Five released three albums from 1995 to 1999, each one building a bigger audience and a little bit more critical momentum than the one before. They were unique in an era of heavy rock as a three-piece (the name was a joke) whose sound was largely built on Folds’ nimble piano work. They scored a breakthrough single in 1997 with “Brick,” but Folds decided to go it alone at the turn of the millennium.

As he told Paste in an interview, he initially worried that he’d torpedoed his career with the decision based on the lack of traction Rockin’ the Suburbs initially gained in the press:

“With Rockin’ the Suburbs, I was a 30-something guy who’d just split with his one-hit wonder band and was on his first dodgy solo record. It’s not a position of strength. People were skipping out on the interviews. I sat in England in an office for eight hours and only one interview showed up.”

The album eventually received some attention thanks to a quasi-feud that was drummed up when some nu-metal rockers badmouthed Folds’ style of music in the press. Folds responded brilliantly with the title track to his solo album, which perfectly aped the nu-metal sound while also poking fun at the supposed edginess of its purveyors.

But the album truly thrived with discerning fans attracted to Folds’ way with lyric and melody, especially on some of the album’s lovely character sketches. In the case of “Fred Jones, Pt. 2,” which features an aching piano hook and some backing vocals from Cake’s John McCrea, Folds was writing about the forced retirement of a North Carolina newspaper editor whose work had meant a lot to Folds.

And the “Pt. 2” part? Well, it gets a little tricky there. On the Ben Folds Five album Whatever and Ever Amen, there’s an extremely short song called “Cigarette” that features a Fred Jones character. Folds took the lyrics for the song entirely from a newspaper article he read at the time, in part because he was surprised to see such a run-on sentence in an article. For “Fred Jones, Pt. 2,” he seems to have latched onto the name just as an Easter Egg for fans, even though the latter song was about someone he actually knew.

What is the Meaning of “Fred Jones, Pt. 2”?

“Fred Jones, Pt. 2” is a story about how obsolescence comes for us all, whether we’re ready for it or not. The story takes place on Fred’s final day at work after a long career, his retirement foisted upon him as someone new prepares to take his spot: There’s an awkward young shadow who waits in the hall. He isn’t even granted a farewell party.

In the second verse, Folds pulls briefly away from Fred’s story to reflect on how his fate is shared by us all: And life barrels on like a runaway train / Where the passengers change, they don’t change anything / You get off, someone else can get on. Fred then heads home and tries a new hobby to pass the time, but bitterness (and we can’t tell if it’s Fred’s or Folds’) rises to the surface: Yeah, and all of these bastards / Have taken his place / He’s forgotten but not yet gone.

“Fred Jones, Pt. 2” not only reflects upon this character’s fate, but it also depicts the harsh realities that anyone getting older can come to expect. Ben Folds managed to combine empathy for this man with frustration at the indignity and inevitability of it all, and it’s a gargantuan songwriting feat, lovely and devastating all at once.

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Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for YoungArts Foundation

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