Cologne, Germany

Cologne by Ben Folds

Oh why weightless as I close my eyes
Oh why the ceiling opens in disguise
Such a painful trip to find out this is it
And as I go to sleep you'll be waking up Read full Lyrics
Cologne c 1945, after bombingsCologne c 1945, after bombings
Unofficially referred to as the City of Churches, Cologne – located on the western side of Germany near Belgium – is a city brimming with culture, beauty, and art. In addition to the twelve Roman Catholic cathedrals sprinkled throughout, this centuries-old town is home to museums, restaurants, parks, and the Rhine River. Its skyline is regularly viewed as one of the continent’s best, and in more recent years Cologne has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Germany.

The city and region boast an impressive yet violent history. Cologne, pronounced Koen, was actually founded by the Roman Empire in 38 B.C., and that influence can still be seen thousands of years later. In the fifth century, the Francs took control and the entire province fell under the control of the Catholic bishops for over 700 years until, after the Battle of Worringen in 1288, Cologne finally gained its independence.

While Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, avoided all bombing during World War II, Cologne fell into the opposing extreme. Between 1942 and 1944, the city endured 262 air raids which resulted in over 20,000 civilian casualties and created what some have called the “world’s greatest heap of rubble.” Why is this important? Because the miracle of Cologne is found within its resilience. The city has undergone so much war and devastation, only to bounce back and become a pivotal center of art and culture.

Colognians can thank the international music industry for aiding this 50-year transformation. Prior to the British invasion of the early 1960s, rock & roll bands from across the continent, as well as the United Kingdom, toured throughout Germany (including Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne) due to the overwhelming demand of the German youth for new music. That demand seems to have persisted to this day, and in the winter of 2008 Ben Folds sat alone in his hotel room, penning a track for his upcoming album that would take the city’s name.
Cologne in modern timesCologne in modern times
Way to Normal, Folds’ third solo studio album after disbanding Ben Folds Five, dropped in September 2008 and quickly climbed to #11 on the Billboard 200. "Cologne," track 6 on that album, tells the semi-autobiographical story of Ben’s breakup with his third wife, Frally Hynes. Known for imbedding philosophical nuggets into his lyrics, Folds follows in the traditions of country and blues in the way those lessons are delivered. "Cologne" is no different.

He paints a vastly different image of Cologne than what you or I would see upon visiting, and as the piano arpeggiates between verses, the loneliness and regret Ben feels is so encompassing, the listener has no choice but to struggle to breathe. Unconfirmed whether or not Ben literally took his soon-to-be ex-wife to the train station and walked back to the hotel for room service, but the despair builds from the first verse to the last.

Oh, why weightless as I close my eyes?
Oh, why the ceiling opens in disguise?
Such a painful trip to find out this is it.
And as I go to sleep, you’ll be waking up.

Frally had returned to the couple’s home in Western Australia (hence the mention of the time difference), while Ben remained in Europe, still on tour. Ben has always had a reputation for touring with friends and family. Incidentally, during his most recent summer 2013 tour with Bare-naked Ladies and Guster, his twins, Louis and Gracie, traveled or met up with the reunited Ben Folds Five for many of the dates.

The song is punctuated by a repeated counting down (four, three, two, one…) during the choruses that mirrors Folds' own pain as he solemnly resigns himself to "let go" of his wife, his relationship, his family, and his home. As with most of his work, the piano is exquisite, and while the song doesn’t adequately portray Cologne, it’s evident to feel what a beautiful city it could’ve been for Ben under different circumstances.

While critics received the album well, the more skeptical fans regarded Cologne as one of the few highlights of an album the diehards feel often misses the mark. As a joke on his fans, Folds wrote, recorded, and produced a fake version of the album in 72 hours while in Ireland and leaked it on the Internet prior to the album’s official release. The problem with the prank is that many of the tracks on the faux album ended up catchier and more radio-friendly than the Way to Normal cuts. Fortunately for Cologne, both versions are fantastic and Folds has been known to perform both in concert.
~ Justin Novelli
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